TOKYO — The Pacific Ocean is “crying out in despair,” said Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as he lamented the plastic contamination reaching even to the sea’s deepest and most remote spots.
At the Group of 20 summit in late June, Abe unveiled what he called the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, a commitment to halt additional plastic waste reaching the seas by 2050.
To the dismay of environmental groups, however, world leaders at the gathering in Japan made no commitment to curb the production of new, single-use plastic.
It was a victory for the plastics industry and the Trump administration, which has blocked any targets or commitments to curb plastics production.
More than 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year — equivalent to a garbage truck’s worth every minute — and scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish.
G-20 leaders, whose nations together represent 80 percent of the global economy, pledged to battle the problem — but not by producing less plastic. Instead, they are looking to better managing waste.
Put simply, world leaders ignored the elephant in the room, said David Azoulay, managing attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law — that “plastic producers are investing massively to vastly increase production of virgin plastic, which can only aggravate the plastic crisis the world is currently facing.”
Yet Abe’s determination to foster concerted action was undermined by U.S. opposition to curb plastic production, and to any legally binding commitments, officials said.
The G-20 communique acknowledged the need for collective action to curb marine litter “through a comprehensive life-cycle approach that includes reducing the discharge of plastic litter by improved waste management and innovative solutions.”
The G-20 document also explicitly recognized the “important role of plastics in society.”
Christopher Chin, executive director of the Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research and Education in San Francisco, called it a “slap in the face.”
“Clearly plastic does play a role in society and some of it is quite useful and I would say even necessary, but we don’t need to say that,” he said. “But what isn’t necessary is the single-use stuff that can’t be recovered.”
Since China stopped importing plastic waste from the rest of the world at the end of 2017, the United States and Japan have found themselves drowning in plastic, with some U.S. cities canceling recycling programs and others simply burning waste.
Chin used the analogy of a running tap and an overflowing sink: The G-20 was trying to clean up the mess without even turning off the tap.
The Trump administration blames the problem on Asian countries, where huge amounts of plastic are being washed along rivers and into the sea, with one study naming China as the worst culprit.
The United States says curbing marine plastic pollution is a high priority, but insists the answer lies in “environmentally sound management of waste” and “innovative solutions” to improve resource efficiency and recyclability.
“We believe these innovations offer more sound solutions to mismanaged waste and scrap than ineffective restrictions such as bans or targets,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under briefing rules.
But environmental groups say this argument ignores the fact that the United States has long been the world’s biggest exporter of plastic waste to poorer countries, and also glosses over the role of U.S. corporations in selling plastics and products packed in plastics to developing countries, often in small, single-use sachets.