NAIROBI, KENYA - It didn’t take long after the recent United Nations environmental assembly in Kenya ended for environmentalists to sharply rebuke the United States for allegedly derailing global ambitions to prevent plastic debris from flowing into the oceans.
“The tyranny of the minority,” their statement declared as environmentalists denounced the Americans for what they said was slowing progress on marine plastics by diluting a resolution calling for phasing out single-use plastic by 2025 and blocking an effort to craft a legally binding treaty on plastic debris.
Yet that unsparing critique doesn’t fully reflect the negotiations that played out in a small roof-top conference room on the UN’s campus in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi. What happened is perhaps best viewed not as tyrannical but as isolationist, more akin to the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. Yes, the US won concessions in Nairobi to the wording on two resolutions involving the fate of marine plastics, but it waged the argument essentially alone, with backing only from Saudi Arabia and Cuba.
“I would not say the US is making itself irrelevant,” says David Azoulay, a Geneva-based lawyer for the Center for International Environmental Law, who observed the negotiations. “But it is true that the US is setting itself further apart, as it did with the withdrawal from the Paris accord, from addressing the critical challenges of our generation. The whole world is addressing the plastic challenge at its roots. The EU is doing it, India is doing it. The world is moving forward.”
The Americans sought to define marine debris as an issue solved exclusively by waste management, said Hugo-Maria Schally, the European Union’s lead negotiator on marine plastics, in an interview, while “virtually everybody else in the room was focused on the idea that there is a problem with production and the use of single-use plastic.”
So, the goal of “phasing out” single-use plastics was replaced by the vaguer wording to “significantly reducing,” and target dates for action slipped from 2025 to 2030. The documents that emerged are not legally binding. But in the end, a deadline remains in place, and a UN working group on marine plastics will continue to work the problem, with the full backing of the UN purse.
“It's fair to say that the UN environmental assembly has put out a very clear message,” Schally says. “Single-use plastics are a problem. There are a variety of ways to address the issue. Waste management is one, but not the only one. We need to look at alternatives and reduce the use by 2030. That's the global message."
Ola Elvestuen, Norway’s minister for climate and environment, expressed disappointment after a panel discussion about the best solutions, but not defeat. “We didn’t get the wording we wanted,” he said. “But we have enough to continue.”
The only existing international treaty addressing marine debris on a global scale is MARPOL, adopted by the International Maritime Organization, which banned ships from dumping plastic waste into the oceans as of 1988–so long ago, that in the fast-accelerating world of plastics production, it is almost antique. Age aside, the trouble with MARPOL is that 80 percent of the estimated 7.25 million tonnes a year that flows into the oceans originates on land, according to research published in 2015.
Not surprisingly, as the visibility of plastic waste has become more prominent, so have calls for a new international treaty that gets to the crux of the problem. In 2017, a group of seven marine scientists tracking how microplastics have altered genes, cells, and tissues in marine organisms—causing death and decreased reproduction—reviewed those findings in an opinion piece published in Science that urged the UN to write a new treaty on plastic pollution.
Later that year, at the UN’s last environmental conference, 193 nations, including the US, endorsed a Clean Seas pact. It was nonbinding and toothless, though significant enough that Norway called it a strong first step.
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A whale shark swims beside a plastic bag in the Gulf of Aden near Yemen. Although whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea, they're still threatened by ingesting small bits of plastic.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION
Adopting global treaties is not supposed to be easy. The UN is, by design, slow-moving, cumbersome, bureaucratic. It took more than a decade, Azoulay points out, for the UN to adopt a treaty protecting human health from mercury poisoning.
What’s notable is how far marine plastic moved up on the agenda for this year’s conference.
Delegates pushed for substantial action. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Iceland’s minister for the environment and natural resources, arrived in Nairobi with hopes the conference would lay the groundwork for a legally binding treaty on marine plastic.
“It’s production of plastics that needs to be tackled,” he said in an interview. “We need less plastics. We need to look at how much we are putting into the system and we need to reduce that. We need to increase reuse of what we already use so that we are trashing as little as we can. Industry needs to find more solutions than we already have today and they may need a push from governments to do something.”
Siim Kiisler, the UN assembly president, who also serves as Estonia’s minister of environment, opened the assembly by urging delegates to take strong action on marine debris, and called for the phasing out of single-use plastic by 2025.
Even the visuals focused on plastics. A large dhow made from discarded plastic bottles and flip-flops stood tilted, as if tacking along the UN’s entry driveway, as its makers announced plans to sail from Kenya to Zanzibar to further the campaign against the plastic menace. A separate Clean Seas venue hosted day-long panel discussions throughout the entire week that drew in dozens of scientists, engineers, politicians, and activists from all corners of the world to debate best solutions.
Target waste management or production?
Joyce Msuya, acting director of the UN Environmental Program, cautions that global ambition “is one thing, but you have to translate that into what it means for the local condition.” Member states, she says, do not start “from the same baseline. We have to customise and look at what can be done and share the experience of what has worked elsewhere.”
The two marine plastics resolutions under consideration included a proposed legally binding agreement, promoted by Norway, Japan, and Sri Lanka. The phase-out of single-use plastics, contained in the second resolution, was argued by India, drowning in an estimated 550,000 tons of mismanaged plastic waste every year, with strong support from the Philippines and other Pacific island groups.
Few were surprised when the United States balked at targets, deadlines, and any reference to bans or levies on various plastic products or reductions in plastic production and consumption. The US negotiators declined to be interviewed; a State Department spokesman said in a statement that the US considers marine plastic “a growing issue” needing urgent action and that improved waste management is the fastest way to achieve that goal.
“We support reducing the environmental impacts from the discharges of plastics,” the statement says. “And we further note that the majority of marine plastic discharges comes from only six countries in Asia where improved waste management could radically decrease these discharges.”
Stewart Harris, director of marine and environment issues at the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, echoes the US stance on waste disposal as the most practical immediate solution to reducing the flow of plastic litter to the ocean.
“We are looking at actions that will make the largest impact in the shortest amount of time,” he says. Product bans, he says, do not fall into that category: “They are not the most effective and not the best use of our time and resources. They fail to address that underlying cause–the lack of infrastructure to manage waste.”
By the UN’s own estimates, two in five people–or 40 percent of the global population–lack access to waste disposal systems. So far, no global entity has come up with any plan to address waste disposal on that scale.
One reason other nations are also seeking reductions in single-use plastics is the growing unease that even creation of the most comprehensive waste disposal systems may not be enough to keep up with the accelerating pace of plastics manufacturing. The plastics industry has grown so rapidly that half the plastic on Earth has been made since 2005, and production is expected to double in the next two decades. Disposable plastic products account for 40 percent of that production and are largely blamed for the plastic mess that’s been made of the seas.
Yet even as bans proliferate around the globe, Harris say consideration of reductions in production or consumption of plastics is premature. Too many unanswered questions remain about the effectiveness of various solutions, he says, adding: “Other discussions need to be had before that. The best answer is we’re not there yet.”
Who’s leading on plastic reform?
The United States’ go-it-alone stance was underscored inadvertently by the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines plane the day before the assembly convened. Among the 157 people killed on board the Nairobi-bound flight were 25 UN staff members and more than two dozen delegates, presenters, and members of environmental and health NGOs heading to the conference.
The aftermath of the tragedy was watched, with increasing incredulity, as the country-by-country groundings of the 737 Max jet unfolded over successive days, leaving the United States alone in its defense of the plane as safe to fly. Only after the UK and, finally, Canada grounded their own Max jets did the US act to ground the world fleet.
In the Clean Seas tent, no one spoke of the obvious similarities to the word-wrangling over the pair of marine debris resolutions. Instead, delegates shrugged off the setbacks and departed to do at home what they couldn’t achieve in Nairobi. Kiisler, the president of the assembly, told National Geographic: “Better to have a weak resolution than no resolution.”
So far, 127 countries have adopted regulations regarding plastic bags, according to UN tallies as of July 2018. Twenty-seven countries have adopted bans on other single-use products, including plates, cups, cutlery, or straws.
India, home to 1.3 billion people and the world’s second most-populated nation, continues preparations to abolish all single-use plastic by 2022 in a plan announced last year that may be the world’s most ambitious undertaking.
The European Parliament is preparing to put into force a sweeping single-use plastics directive it passed last year that bans the single-use plastics most commonly found on European beaches by 2021 and sets up programs to significantly reduce containers and cups by 2028. With 28 mostly rich member nations, the EU is arguably the most influential world power after the UN. The latest measures have made it the world’s leading voice on the plastic crisis.