The politics of plastic needs local champions

The politics of plastic needs local champions

“INC-3” is an ironic name for a recent worldwide meeting of scientific, medical, environmental, and social justice experts to decide what to do about plastic pollution and the global problems it is causing. This took place as the corporations that extract oil and gas – some of the biggest “INCs” in the world – are counting on increased demand from the plastics industry for their product as the use of fossil fuels for transportation and energy declines.

The INC we are discussing here stands not as shorthand for incorporated, but for the International Negotiating Committee established to forge a legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution. This organization was created in response to plastic pollution being added as the 10th planetary boundary. (Planetary boundaries in the geological sense are those that could have largescale impacts that threaten the integrity of Earth system processes and therefore those that humanity must respect to keep our planet habitable.)

INC has a noble but incredibly ambitious goal. According to the UN Program on the Environment, this year the world will produce 430 million tons of plastic. Note that I didn’t say consume, because there is no “consume” when it comes to plastic. Every single piece of plastic ever manufactured anywhere in the world is still here, somewhere. Much of it ends up in our oceans, where it is threatening and killing marine life. A lot of it ends up clogging our landfills, and, of course, much of it is incinerated, releasing toxic gases like dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the atmosphere, which pose a threat to vegetation and animal health, including humans.

Tiny plastic bits called nano — and microplastics are now found in the water we drink and the air we breathe. Plastic is in the plants we grow and in the food made from those plants. Plastic is in the flesh of fish served at fancy restaurants.

Even more insidiously, plastic has invaded our own bodies. We are finding microscopic pieces of plastic in blood and breast milk, our heart and lungs, and even in maternal and fetal placenta tissues. This is happening now, and every piece of plastic we use from today onwards just adds to the as-yet undetermined health burden we are placing on the human race as well as other living things.

The third session of the worldwide INC meeting took place this month in Nairobi, Kenya. Nearly 2,000 delegates participated, representing 161 member countries and over 318 observer organizations — UN entities, intergovernmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations. Along with the delegates seeking solutions to our plastic crisis were 143 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists, there to ensure that no decisions were taken that would harm the bottom line of the corporations they work for.

The participation of the oil and gas lobbyists is not without controversy. Groups of environmental and scientific organizations have petitioned the UN to safeguard the negotiations from industry influence and to implement and enforce strong conflict of interest policies. But the influence goes on.

The International Panel on Chemical Pollution, an organization of independent scientists established to provide unbiased, science-based information to decision-makers like those attending INC-3, has been continuously and vigorously lobbied by the oil and gas industry through its front group, the Global Climate Coalition. Tax records show that the GCC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an IPCC “Tracker Fund” to monitor IPCC meetings, conduct meetings with IPCC scientists and provide preferred language for IPCC documents.

Politics being what they are, the leadership of the International Negotiating Committee has played down the influence of the oil and gas lobby. At INC-2 last June, the Secretariat stated that there were “not a lot of fossil fuel companies in the venue,” but many delegates disputed this claim. They worry that unless corporate influence is limited, any resulting treaty will be overly friendly to the oil and gas industry, which is the primary culprit in the plastic crisis.

Like many global problems, they can and should also be addressed locally with consumer education and good legislation. For instance, the problem of plastic pollution in our own communities comes into stark view every fall, as well-meaning homeowners (or their landscapers) dutifully collect their leaves, place them in giant, thick plastic garbage bags and put them out for the trash. A typical “fall cleanup” can result in a dozen or more plastic bags lining the curb, waiting for the garbage truck to take them away.

This is particularly distressing when you consider that many communities across the country have asked their residents and landscapers to use thick paper bags instead of plastic for unwanted leaves. This single, simple action could save tons of plastic from entering the waste stream. And although it may not dramatically impact our global plastic pollution crisis, every step that creates awareness is a step in the right direction.

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