How to rid the world of plastic waste
The production of plastic has doubled in the past 20 years worldwide.
“The research field is coming to a point where we can start to say yes, there are risks in the environment and probably for human health,” Bethanie Carney Amroth says.
Plastic waste in the environment has grown, too.
Can a new global treaty help?
Today, On Point: How to rid the world of plastic waste.
John Hocevar, oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace U.S.
Dr. Charlotte Lloyd, environmental Chemist at the University of Bristol.
David Clement, North American Affairs Manager for the Consumer Choice Center.
Dr. Bethanie Carney Almroth, professor of ecotoxicology and environmental sciences at the University of Gothenburg.
Dr. Ted Schettler, science advisor for Health Care Without Harm and Science Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network.
WION NEWS BRIEF: Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is situated on the banks of the river Buriganga. The immense beauty of this river can only be seen through the eyes of a bird. Because as soon as you put your feet on the ground, thick layers of polythene and plastic waste emerge from the dirt.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That report of entire neighborhoods in Bangladesh where the ground is made of plastic is from WION News. And it’s not just in Bangladesh. Plastic waste is everywhere on planet Earth, because the amount of plastic humans have produced now outweighs all of the world’s animals by a factor of two. As WION reports from the other side of the world.
WION NEWS BRIEF: The once pristine beaches of Rio de Janeiro have been engulfed in a tsunami of plastic waste, everything from plastic bags and bottles to children’s toys and dead fish.
CHAKRABARTI: Of course, fish are not the only victims. Plastics, through their manufacturing use and breakdown, are linked to cancers, lung disease and birth defects.
A study published this year in the journal Annals of Global Health concluded, quote, “The main driver of these worsening harms is an almost exponential and still accelerating increase in global plastic production.” Plastics harms are further magnified by low rates of recovery and recycling and by the long persistence of plastic waste in the environment,” end quote.
Perhaps nothing illustrates that persistence better than this report from Africa News. It’s about the ever-growing 30-acre open air Dandora dump in Nairobi, Kenya.
AFRICA NEWS REPORT: Smoke billows from the mountain of waste at the Dandora dump in Nairobi. People scavenge for recyclable materials. (FOREIGN LANGUAGE) We usually look for plastic bottles, carton boxes, gunny bags, bones and food. Yet we do this without protective gear or gum boots so we sometimes get cuts from glass. We’re really suffering. A UN report has condemned the site as a public health threat that can cause skin cancers and blood disorders.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s a public health threat from a smoking mountain of largely plastic waste.
Just a few miles away from that dump, world leaders will gather this month to attempt to come to an agreement on how to reduce global plastic waste. So today we’ll go inside the debate over a new UN treaty to control plastic pollution. What might it look like? Is that even a realistic goal at this point, given how much human beings rely on plastics products?
John Hocevar joins us today. He’s the Ocean’s Campaigns Director for Greenpeace, and he will be heading to Kenya to take place, or to take part in these talks. John, welcome to On Point.
JOHN HOCEVAR: Hi, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: So you’re the Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace. I imagine that has taken you to places on land and at sea around the world, yes?
HOCEVAR: It has indeed. I do spend a fair bit of time on ships and airplanes.
CHAKRABARTI: Has there been a place at sea, for example, where you didn’t at some point in time in that journey encounter a piece of plastic waste?
HOCEVAR: Unfortunately, there is nowhere left to go where we won’t find plastic on our planet. I was in Antarctica a couple of years ago and we saw plastic in the snow. It didn’t come from anyone that was visiting in Antarctica. It is just a problem that we have put so much plastic into our world. It is circulating in the ocean currents, in the air currents, and it is settling literally everywhere.
CHAKRABARTI: So this was a piece of plastic that may have come from, I don’t know, where I am, Boston, Massachusetts, and floated through ocean currents all the way down to Antarctica?
HOCEVAR: That is a possibility. Absolutely.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, wow. I wish I could go there and find one of those pieces of plastic and do a story about where did it come from.
But what you’re saying is that there’s no place left on Earth. We’ve even seen, I’m sure folks have seen, pictures from Mount Everest at various base camps, even though I think the custom is to try to keep it as clean as possible. There’s just plastic everywhere, even at the highest altitudes of planet Earth.
HOCEVAR: That’s right. I think, a lot of people first started to understand that we had a plastic problem when they were seeing pictures of sea turtles with straws in their noses, or whales choked to death on plastic bags, or maybe seabirds feeding lighters and bottle caps to their chicks, but it’s much bigger than an ocean problem.
It is truly everywhere, and it is a human problem. It’s a climate problem. It’s an environmental justice problem.
CHAKRABARTI: A little bit later, we’ll talk about the effects of the plastics we don’t see. Right? All those microplastics and the chemicals within the plastic products themselves. But John, so obviously the urgency of the problem is real and recognized. So tell me what is the UN and this gathering trying to accomplish?
HOCEVAR: The United Nations, meaning all of the governments in the world, have agreed to negotiate a global plastic treaty for the first time, and that is in itself really powerful. There’s a lot that can come from that. And they have decided that this is urgent enough that they’ve committed to completing this treaty by the end of next year.
And whether that’s going to be possible or not, I’m not ready to bet on that, but still, they are setting themselves an ambitious timeline. And that’s important, because as you said, we have some real urgency here.
CHAKRABARTI: The timeline, if I understand correctly, is to create a workable treaty by next year, 2024.
HOCEVAR: Yes, that’s right.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, that does seem quite ambitious. Especially given the fact, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not just that plastic pollution is growing and bad and environmental and health threat, but there’s also the flip side to that. And that is, we rely on plastics for many products tools from the industrial scale, down to the consumer scale.
So this is asking for quite a change in a very basic reality about modern life. Would the treaty aim to reduce the amount of plastic waste or reduce the amount of plastic production or both?
HOCEVAR: That is the million-dollar question, or I should say the trillion-dollar question. It is to be determined.
The goal is to deal with plastic pollution. And what that means is so far very different to different governments. Greenpeace’s hope and expectation is that the treaty addresses plastic production, that we cap production, and that we set ambitious reduction targets every year, so we end up reducing plastic production by at least 75% by 2030 or 2040.
CHAKRABARTI: We reached out to several groups that represent plastics manufacturers in this country, and we heard back specifically from the American Chemistry Council, which represents obviously many of the plastics makers, they sent us a lengthy statement. I’ll read from parts of it throughout the show, but first and foremost, they said, “Society and modern life rely on plastic, as does our progress towards achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals.”
First of all, respond to that, John.
HOCEVAR: I’m not surprised to hear them say that. The largest plastic producer in the world is ExxonMobil. And so we’re really talking, we’re talking about petrochemical companies. We’re talking about Exxon and Dow and some of the biggest oil and gas companies on the planet.
And they’ve never particularly worried about climate change, as we all know. And so here they are saying, look we can’t get rid of plastic. We need it because it’s important for the climate. And conveniently, they are not mentioning that 99% of the plastic that we use is made from fossil fuels, especially oil and gas, and some places, even coal.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, sometimes I tell my kids when they’re drinking out of a water bottle, that bottle is made out of dead dinosaurs and ancient plants. But just to note, we did reach out to Exxon, Dow, and other major manufacturers as well. They did not respond to our requests for interviews, but we have this statement from the American Chemistry Council.
Let me just tell you a little bit more about what they said, John, regarding those sustainable development goals. They point out things like plastic make up critical components in solar panels and wind turbines. They make cars and vehicles lighter so that there can be more fuel efficiency from a gallon of gas.
They even help, they’re the pipes through which clean water flow. It’s important to quickly manufacture such pipes to get that kind of infrastructure to places that have been suffering under infrastructure neglect, sanitation, all of these things. You don’t dispute that plastic is quite essential to development, to improving life in critical ways.
HOCEVAR: What I will say is that it’s everywhere. You’re absolutely right about that. When the petrochemical lobby points to these examples, it’s really a distraction. The real conversation in these treaty negotiations is not so much about plastic in wind turbines or health care.
It’s in the trillions of throwaway plastic packaging items that we go through every year, for example. In fishing gear that’s casually discarded and continues to pollute our oceans and entangle whales and other marine life for decades and even centuries. What we’re really wanting to focus on here is the stuff that’s absolutely unnecessary.
And that is the bulk of the plastic that we’re using.
CHAKRABARTI: By the way, for all the listeners who are about to jump on their computers and send me an email about how can I possibly let my children drink out of plastic bottles given the amount of plastic waste in the world, they almost never have their drinks out of plastic bottles.
I just want to say, we’ve got reusable stainless-steel bottles. Please don’t send me that email today.
CHAKRABARTI: John, one last question before we have to take our first break here. What are your UN goals? What are Greenpeace U.S.’s goals for what they’d like to see come out of these treaty negotiations? Because I think yours is quite ambitious regarding how much plastic reduction in plastic production you’d like to see.
HOCEVAR: This round of negotiations is an important one. Because at this point, all of the good things are still on the table. And we want to make sure that they stay there.
So that means that we have to make sure that this treaty is going to be talking about reduction of plastic production. It needs to be talking about phasing out and eliminating dangerous chemicals and particular uses and types of plastic.
CHAKRABARTI: To be more specific, if I understand correctly, you want to see, you, meaning Greenpeace, wants to see a 75% reduction in plastic production by 2040 around the world. We’ll have a lot more about that when we come back.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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