US accused of blocking ambitious global action against plastic pollution

US accused of blocking ambitious global action against plastic pollution

Commitments agreed at UN conference in Kenya do not go far enough, say green groups

Environmental groups involved in talks at a United Nations conference in Kenya have accused the US of blocking an ambitious global response to plastic pollution.

Representatives of countries at the UN environment conference in Nairobi this week agreed to significantly reduce single-use plastics over the next decade but the voluntary pledges fell far short of what was required, according to green groups.

Norway, Japan and Sri Lanka had put forward proposals for a legally binding agreement for nations to coordinate action against plastic litter in the oceans and microplastics. India also suggested strong action with a resolution to phase out single-use plastic across the world.

But a coalition of environmental groups at the conference condemned the US for blocking the ambitious attempts to tackle plastic pollution at source as well as downstream.

An initial ministerial statement at the beginning of the event had proposed a commitment to “phase out single-use plastics … by 2025”, a far stronger promise than the compromise nations reached.

On Friday, a series of non-binding proposals were agreed, including the adoption of an action plan by the International Maritime Organization’s marine environment protection committee to reduce plastic litter from ships, and suggestions for better global management of data on plastic pollution. A final statement said countries would “address the damage to our ecosystems caused by the unsustainable use and disposal of plastic products, including by significantly reducing single-use plastic by 2030”.

In response, environmental groups including Break Free From Plastic, IPEN, Plastic Change, No Waste Louisiana and Coare said the proposals did not go far enough.

“Despite sweeping agreement by the majority of countries that urgent, ambitious and global action is needed to address plastic across its lifecycle, from production to use to disposal, a small minority led by the United States blocked ambitious text and delayed negotiations,” they said in a statement.

Countries most affected by plastic pollution including the Philippines, Malaysia and Senegal were against the resolution being watered down.

Large oil firms in the US are investing billions of dollars in petrochemical production over the next decade, particularly shale gas.

The new facilities, which are being built by ExxonMobile Chemical and Shell Chemical, among others, will help fuel a 40% rise in plastic production in the next decade, according to industry experts.

The world already produces more than 300m tonnes of plastic a year.

“It’s hard to find one solution for all member states,” Siim Kiisler, the president of the UN environment assembly, told Agence France-Presse before the final decision. “The environment is at a turning point. We don’t need verbose documents, we need concrete commitments.”

When asked whether the US had pushed to have the commitments watered down during the week’s negotiations, Kiisler said: “I will not answer that question.”

David Azoulay, from the Center for International Environmental Law, condemned the weakening of the commitment.

He said: “The vast majority of countries came together to develop a vision for the future of global plastic governance. Seeing the US, guided by the interests of the fracking and petrochemical industry, leading efforts to sabotage that vision is disheartening.”

Article originally posted in The Guardian.


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U.S. weakens first global commitment on curbing single-use plastics

U.S. weakens first global commitment on curbing single-use plastics

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nations made their first global commitment towards curtailing the surging consumption of single-use plastics on Friday, but critics said it failed to confront the planet’s pollution crisis with the United States blocking efforts for more radical action.

After five days of talks in the Kenyan capital, ministers at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) agreed to curb items like plastic bags, bottles and straws over the next decade as part of moves aimed at creating a more sustainable planet.

“We will address the damage to our ecosystems caused by the unsustainable use and disposal of plastic products, including by significantly reducing single-use plastic products by 2030,” said a ministerial declaration at the end of the summit.

Countries would “work with the private sector to find affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives,” it added.

The nearly 200 environment ministers also made a host of other commitments – ranging from reducing food waste and marine litter to developing and sharing innovative technologies and consulting indigenous people when developing policies.

But environmental campaigners said the governments’ commitment on curbing plastic was disappointing and failed to urgently confront the ever-growing pollution crisis threatening the world’s waterways, ecosystems and health.

Negotiators said most nations, including the European Union, at the UNEA backed stronger action suggested by India which wanted governments to commit to “phasing-out most problematic single-use plastic products by 2025”.

But a few countries led by the United States – and including Saudi Arabia and Cuba – played “spoiler” by watering down the text, replacing it with a commitment to “significantly reduce” single-use plastics by 2030, said negotiators and campaigners.

“The vast majority of countries came together to develop a vision for the future of global plastic governance,” said David Azoulay from the Center for International Environmental Law.

“Seeing the U.S., guided by the interests of the fracking and petrochemical industry, leading efforts to sabotage that vision is disheartening.”

Brian Doherty, a member of the U.S. delegation at the UNEA, told delegates there was a need to focus on waste management in countries which were major sources of marine plastic pollution, rather than focus on phasing out single use plastics.

“We support reducing the environmental impacts from the discharge of plastics, but 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,” he said.

One million plastic drinks bottles are purchased every minute globally, while some 500 billion disposable plastic bags are used worldwide every year, said the United Nations.

Nearly a third of plastic packaging escapes waste collection systems, and at least 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into the oceans each year, smothering reefs and threatening marine life.

Plastic also enters water supplies and the food chain, where it could harm humans in the long term, the U.N. added.

Action is gearing up around the world – from countries banning plastic bags to companies vowing to cut their usage of plastic – yet still more efforts are needed to both reduce and recycle plastic, environmentalists said.

Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and John Ndiso, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org

Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and John Ndiso, Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org
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Appeal to ban SINGLE USE PLASTICS in Sri Lanka

Appeal to ban SINGLE USE PLASTICS in Sri Lanka

March 7, 2019

Hon. President Maithripala Sirisena, Presidential Secretariat, Colombo Sri Lanka
Hon. Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, Prime Minister’s Office
Hon. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Parliament of Sri Lanka
Hon. Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Minister of Finance
cc. Hon Parliamentary members

Dear Excellencies,

Appeal to ban SINGLE USE PLASTICS in Sri Lanka

As you are aware SINGLE USE PLASTICS has become a major threat to people, environment and all life forms. Sri
Lankan soil, coast line, rivers, wetlands, lakes and other ecosystems have already become the dumping ground and
polluted due to plastic material and microplastics. It was recently reported that 60,000 Sq Km of the Bay of Bengal
has now become a dead zone due to plastics.

The killing of the ocean will have much negative impacts on the fisher communities around the country. We are losing
tourism due to the dirty beaches around the country. According to the 2010 data Ari Lanka is among the five counties that
badly dealt with plastics. Sri Lanka still remain in the list of countries that release plastics into the ocean.
Scientist have found fish and human body already has microplastics which will have serious health impacts
unidentified so far.

We also know that plastics have become a serious impact on the wildlife due to the mismanagement of garbage and
the contents of the garbage. Wild elephants, Spotted Deer, Samba Deer, Wild boar, Cattle, dogs and many other wild
and domesticated animals are in great danger.
Plastics also become the breeding grounds for mosquitos and increasing the risk of Dengi and other vector borne

Burning plastics, especially PVC emits very toxic fumes including Dioxins and Furans which are responsible for many
lung diseases and Cancer. There is no safe methods of burning plastics in Cement Kilns, Incineration or in waste to
Energy plants around the world. The experts who propose such solutions don’t know the full picture of the danger.
We understand that the temporary solutions such as using plastic for the road construction, eco bricks etc. continue
to increase microplastic in the environment, and do not bring any solution to this problem. It is very clear that there
is no 100% effective recycling industry worldwide for plastics.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme and many other scientists Only nine per cent (9%) of the
nine (9) billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. Most ends up in landfills, dumps or
in the environment. If current consumption patterns and waste management practices continue, then by 2050 there
will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment.

It is a known fact that Packaging industry is responsible for 90 % of the single use plastics 50% of the total plastics
around the world and in Sri Lanka.

Most plastics do not biodegrade. Instead, they slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics.
Studies suggest that plastic bags and containers made of expanded polystyrene foam (commonly referred to as
“Styrofoam”) can take up to thousands of years to decompose, contaminating soil and water.

The most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic
drinking bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types
of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers. These are the waste products of a throwaway culture that treats
plastic as a disposable material rather than a valuable resource to be harnessed.

I have served as a member of the technical committee appointed by your government to bring regulations to
mitigate plastics in 2017. However, it has been ineffective and inadequate in many ways. Your initiative as then
Minister of Environment to ban plastic bags less than 20 microns in 2007 was not effectively enforced. It is not
adequate to resolve this crisis anymore.

Understanding that there is a global crisis related to plastics with no scientific or political solutions exists Centre for
Environmental Justice believe that Sri Lanka need to take a more appropriate solution. Since plastic pollution in Sri
Lanka do not have a local solution or a single solution, Sri Lanka need to implement very stricter approach based on
avoid, minimize, mitigate approach and the polluter pays principle.

Therefore, we propose immediate ban of single use plastics including plastic bags, lunch sheets, sachet packets,
biscuit wrappers, plastic strew, cutlery, yoghurt cups, cotton buds and use of plastic bottle in the water and
beverage industry etc.

Plastic bottles (PET Bottles) an lids use in the water and soft drink/beverage industry such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola,
Elephant house, American water and many other similar companies is a greater challenge to resolve the plastic crisis.
The data shows that year 2012 huge number of plastic stoppers, lids and caps have imported to Sri Lanka. These
companies are well known for charging heavy cost for the plastic bottles which is very cheap for production. They
have promised to use that money for the recycling of the bottles which never happened in the past 2 decades.
These bottles can be easily transferred to glass bottles which was the case before. Therefore, we believe that use of
plastic bottles in the water and beverage industry should be banned immediately.

The small plastic packets of shampoo, toothpaste, washing powders, Samahan, herbal medicines, also known as Sachet
packet and small packets of peanuts etc., has identified as one of the greatest challenges to solve the plastic pollution.
We also understood that biscuits wrappers of the Manchee, Maliban and others have become a big part of the
plastic pollution. They are even found in the places such as Horton Plains, Sri Pada etc. Therefore, CEJ believe that all
Sachet packets and plastic biscuits wrapper should be completely banned immediately.

Plastics toys have also become a serious plastic polluter in Sri Lanka. They are also contaminated with heavy metals
such as lead. Such companies and importers should make accountable for cleaning their plastic waste.
Based on the polluter pays principle the packaging industries should develop a mechanism to collect all their plastic
material and recycle them in an environmentally sound socially responsible manner.

It’s very urgent to revisit the ban imposed in September 2017 and correct the regulatory measures adopted and
build a proper implementation mechanism to impose the regulation.

Meanwhile we believe there are sustainable options for the packaging industry based on the natural material, which
are not going to develop without providing a reasonable space in the market.

It is now understood that, even bioplastics derived from renewable sources (such as corn starch, cassava roots, or
sugarcane) or from bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids (PHA) do not decay do not automatically degrade in the
environment and especially not in the ocean. Therefore, Sri Lanka should not encourage such bioplastics.

Extended Producer Responsibility is such mechanism accepted worldwide. Such process is widely in operation in
other countries by the Transnational corporations operate in Sri Lanka and they should have equal treatment for Sri
Lankan environment and people too.

It is highly unacceptable that the green washing of these companies under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
initiatives and such other programmes. It is highly unacceptable to mislead and misdefine Extended Producer
Responsibility for the corporate interest. Consumer Affairs Authority and the Central Environmental Authority
should be accountable for directing the Industries and the corporation towards this process.

There should be an ongoing dialogue to advocate the new approaches and introduction of a suitable model of
Extended Producer Responsibility as a nationally important action for Sri Lanka. The relevant national agencies,
Ministries, corporations, Police, CSOs and people should build a partnership to find a sustainable solution for the
plastic pollution in the country.

There should be a nationwide awareness to educate people around the country to change their attitude on plastics.
We believe that all media should play a role in educating people and change the attitude on the plastics on pro bono

CEJ believe that Sri Lanka should play a critical role to manage plastics as part of the global effort to manage
increasing plastic crisis in the world. It is also important to completely ban importation of plastic waste for Waste to
Energy plants, landfilling or reuse.

Sri Lanka government should support the international efforts to bring plastic waste under Basal convention so that
it will be treated as a hazardous waste and handle with care.

CEJ believes discouraging overproduction, banning single use plastics, bring legislations to regulate plastic
production and usage, look for alternatives to the plastics and get public support through awareness is the way
forward to minimize the plastic pollution in Sri Lanka and around the world.

Centre for Environmental Justice expect your leadership to resolve this great threat to Sri Lanka and save our land
and marine environment from plastics.

Sincerely yours,

Hemantha Withanage
Executive Director

1. Secretary, Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment
2. Secretary Ministry of Finance
3. Director General, Central Environmental Authority
4. Director General, Consumer Affairs Authority

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Here’s Why America Is Dumping Its Trash in Poorer Countries

Here’s Why America Is Dumping Its Trash in Poorer Countries

The filthy secrets of the multibillion-dollar global recycling industry.

This story was originally published by HuffPost. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Bales of plastic garbage, stacked 15 feet high, shimmered in the 100-degree heat. They gave off a faint chemical smell as they warped and softened under the equatorial sun.

A canary-yellow Walmart clearance tag poked out from one of the dirty heaps. Wrappers and packages from American products were visible nearby. These items had likely traveled 10,000 miles to this unmarked and apparently unauthorized dumpsite in a quiet industrial neighborhood in northwestern Malaysia. 

Ad hoc dumps like this one, teeming with foreign waste, have popped up across Southeast Asia in recent months —each an ugly symbol of a global recycling system that regional activists and politicians have described as unjust, inequitable and broken. In January and February, HuffPost visited several of these sites in Malaysia to see what really happens to much of the plastic trash that originates in the US and other wealthy nations.

Last year Malaysia became—virtually overnight—the world’s largest importer of plastic scrap, receiving hundreds of millions of tons from the United States, Europe, Japan and elsewhere. Malaysia’s neighbors, including Thailand and Vietnam, endured a similar deluge. The results have been shocking.

In Malaysia, shipments of imported plastic are piling up at ports, and a robust underground industry of illegal recyclers has spread across the nation, affecting the health and safety of local communities.

“What’s happening in Southeast Asia, what’s happening in Malaysia, shows just how bankrupt the recycling system really is,” said Von Hernandez, the global coordinator for the Break Free From Plastic initiative, speaking from the Philippines in February. “Consumers, especially those in the West, are conditioned to believe that when they separate their recyclables and throw them out, that it’ll be properly taken care of. But that’s been exposed as a myth.”

“What’s happening in Southeast Asia, what’s happening in Malaysia, shows just how bankrupt the recycling system really is.”

US companies, despite making broad promises about reducing waste and promoting recycling, are often unaware of where their used products and packaging end up.

Walmart, which has vowed to reduce waste and to invest in recycling infrastructure, did not respond to questions about the bale found in Malaysia, but Jerry Powell, the executive editor of the industry publication Resource Recycling, said the company was likely clueless as to how plastic waste apparently generated at one of its US stores traveled thousands of miles across the ocean only to pollute a Malaysian neighborhood. A Walmart store might send its plastic rubbish to a local recycler, he said last week from Oregon, “but what their local recycler does with it, they have no idea. They don’t track where it goes from there.”

Only about half the trash at the Ipoh dumpsite appeared to be from Malaysia. The other half was a hodgepodge of waste from countries like the US, China and New Zealand. The bale with the Walmart tag was tightly packed with an array of other plastic waste, including a bag that once contained cheese from Wisconsin cheesemaker Sargento with a US 800 number printed on its back and a bright blue Oreo Mini container, empty and crushed flat. The bale was wrapped in a plastic sheet stamped with “Sigma Supply of North America,” a packaging company based in Arkansas—the state where Walmart has its headquarters. (Sigma Supply did not respond to a request for comment.)

Most of that trash had been sitting there for at least eight months, according to activists from Greenpeace Malaysia who discovered the unlicensed dumpsite last year. Ben Muni, a Greenpeace campaigner, said the piles of unsheltered waste may eventually be burned illegally or left to decompose in the heat and humidity—a process that could take hundreds of years. “This is probably just going to be left here to rot,” he said.

For months, Greenpeace has been sounding the alarm about Malaysia’s plastic crisis.

“America and other wealthy nations are sweeping their waste to Malaysia and other countries,” said activist Heng Kiah Chun. “Southeast Asia shouldn’t be the world’s dumping ground.”

The filthy secrets of the multibillion-dollar global recycling industry became apparent in the summer of 2017, when China—which had for decades been the world’s largest importer of recyclables—suddenly announced its intention to close its borders to 24 categories of recyclable waste, including several kinds of scrap plastic and mixed paper. The ban was enforced on Jan. 1, 2018, and its effects rippled around the globe.

The move hit hard in the US, which has historically exported about one-third of its recyclables annually, most of it to China. Across the US, mountains of plastic, paper and other materials began piling up at recycling facilities or ended up in landfills. A number of municipalities—from Sacramento, California, to Hooksett, New Hampshire—canceled or significantly curtailed their recycling programs. Cole Rosengren, a reporter for Waste Dive, a DC-based publisher of waste industry news, told HuffPost last July, “There is no state in the country that has not felt at least something because of the [Chinese] ban.”

But US recyclers soon found new buyers and destinations for Americans’ garbage, particularly their plastic waste. Starting in late 2017 and escalating through 2018, Malaysia and other nations in Southeast Asia were flooded with recyclable plastics from the US. The region’s imports from other developed nations like the UK, Germany, Japan and Australia also skyrocketed.

The firehose of trash caught these recipient countries by surprise. None had recycling facilities that remotely compared with China’s, noted Hernandez. In the first half of 2018, imports of plastic trash doubled in Vietnam and increased in Thailand by a staggering 1,370 percent compared with the same period the previous year, according to an October report in the Financial Times. At one point last June, Thailand reportedly had 30,000 containers full of imported plastic waste sitting in its ports because of a lack of capacity and issues with import permits. Vietnam reported some 9,000 idle containers of plastic waste, according to Resource Recycling.

From January to November 2018, Malaysia imported about 435 million pounds of plastic scrap from the US alone, according to data provided by Resource Recycling. Over the same period in 2017, US exporters sent just over 220 million pounds of scrap plastic to Malaysia.

To understand why a country like the US ships so much of its plastic recyclables abroad, one must first understand the complexities of recycling plastic, particularly postconsumer plastic like used food containers and packaging. It’s a notoriously difficult and labor-intensive process—one that’s so complex, in fact, that the bulk of discarded plastics, including the stuff thrown into recycling bins, don’t end up being recycled.

From 1950 to 2015, a staggering 6.9 billion tons of plastics were thrown out worldwide; of that, only an estimated 9 percent has been recycled. In the US the 2018 plastic recycling rate was projected to be an abysmal 4.4 percent.

The rules about what can be recycled are confusing, and they differ depending on where you live. As a result, many well-intentioned people toss items into the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there.

Experts generally point to two major flaws in the plastic recycling process as the reasons behind these low numbers: The rules about what can be recycled are confusing, and they differ depending on where you live. As a result, many well-intentioned people toss items into the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there.

Sorting, often by hand, is thus a necessary first step before recyclers can process postconsumer plastic. Colored soda bottles need to be separated from clear ones. Plastic bags and cling wrap, known to gum up recycling equipment, have to be fished out. Items heavily contaminated with food bits need to be removed too.

But since sorting is such a labor-intensive exercise, it usually doesn’t make economic sense for many recyclers in the US and other developed countries.

So-called clean plastic recyclables like industrial plastic waste are mostly recycled in the United States, but “easily 80 percent of America’s mixed plastics are getting sent abroad,” said Powell. “They’re too dirty to do anything with [here] in a cost-effective way.”

For decades, China bought this waste for cheap from America and other developed nations to feed its flourishing manufacturing sector. Before its 2018 ban, China processed about 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste. From 1992 to 2016, the country imported more than 110 million tons of plastic scrap.

But as its pace of manufacturing slowed and labor costs rose, Beijing’s desire to be the world’s recycling bin rapidly diminished. Much of the imported recyclable waste was so contaminated that it could not be recycled anyway, Chinese officials complained, and piles of imported waste were ending up in China’s landfills and polluting the country’s waterways.

“Recycling is such a moral gray area,” said Adam Minter, a recycling expert and the author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. “When you put your recyclables in the bin, you want it to feel green, but it’s really very complicated. If you think you’re not wasting resources and not making an environmental or social impact, then you clearly don’t understand what’s happening.”

This moral grayness has been thrown into sharp relief in Malaysia, where hundreds of plastics recyclers from China—lured by cheaper labor and less stringent environmental regulations—have relocated their operations in the aftermath of the Chinese ban.

Activists say these Chinese recyclers have been setting up factories, often illegally, across Malaysia and have been processing and disposing of waste without regulatory oversight. Whatever they manage to recycle is allegedly flowing back to China, where it’s used for manufacturing. “China still needs a lot of raw materials,” Minter said.

“You have to understand that recycling is really about manufacturing, and it’s only about manufacturing,” continued Minter, whose family has operated a scrap business in Minnesota for several generations. “We’ve come to see recycling as this environmental thing that’s dusted with green fairy dust—but [recyclables] are really raw materials, and the reason they went to China in the first place is because all the manufacturing was happening there. And it continues to go there now because manufacturing is still happening.”

A Malaysian environment official explained that while legal recyclers may be unwilling to import contaminated plastic recyclables, unauthorized recyclers have no such qualms. “It’s lucrative for them,” said Phee Boon Poh, the chairman of the state environment committee in Penang, speaking from his office in February.

Processing contaminated plastic recyclables requires more sorting (to sift out the good stuff) and incurs additional costs for legal recyclers, which need to meet regulatory requirements and shell out cash to discard whatever waste they aren’t able to recycle.

Unlicensed recyclers, however, can set up factories and hire workers cheaply, Phee said, and illegally access groundwater for the recycling process. Without any environmental regulations to worry about, the recyclers can leave contaminated water untreated — which, Phee said, has been affecting local waterways and biodiversity. Leftover recyclables that can’t be processed can then be dumped illegally (in other words, for free). Often these dumped plastics are then burned, their noxious fumes polluting neighborhoods and sickening residents.

“These naughty boys are importing a lot of what’s basically just rubbish.”

“These naughty boys are importing a lot of what’s basically just rubbish,” said Johnson Lai, a licensed recycler based near the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, referring to the rash of illegal recycling facilities that have cropped up around the country. “The recyclables they import, they’re [so contaminated and poorly sorted] that only approximately 30 percent of it can be used.” The rest ends up getting dumped.

At one illegal dumpsite in Jenjarom, a small industrial town about 40 miles south of Kuala Lumpur, HuffPost found plastic waste from the US, the UK, Germany and elsewhere in Europe piled high in charred heaps, the result of an attempted burning. In one blackened bale, apparently from America, various colorful plastic bags and packaging items had melted into one another—a 7/11 bag with a US phone number on it for potential franchisees to call, a torn Sour Patch Kids packet singed on one side and a wrapper from an Arizona green tea container. “An American Company,” the wrapper boasted.

Local firefighters went to this site a few weeks earlier to put out the blaze after plumes of white smoke, thick with pollutants, choked the surrounding neighborhood. The people who set the trash alight—presumed to be the unlicensed recyclers who dumped it there — were never caught.

“They’ve given us legal recyclers such a bad name,” Lai lamented. “It’s been very bad for business.”

But these “naughty boys” in Malaysia aren’t the only ones to blame for this crisis. According to Powell, recycling exporters in the US should be scrutinized as well.

Exporters have been known to hide bales of contaminated plastic waste in shipments that contain otherwise clean plastics, he said. “American recycling processors may not want to pay to dump stuff in landfills here. It could be easier and cheaper to just shove them in the back of a container and ship them off.”

Low shipping costs could be encouraging this behavior, Powell said.

Shipping containers are constantly arriving in the US from Asia, “filled with Nike shoes and Apple phones,” he said. But since American goods aren’t getting shipped back to Asia in the same quantities, freight companies—rather than ship empty containers—offer low rates to recycling exporters to ship recyclables there.

“It might cost $3,000 for a 24-ton container to be shipped from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, but the return journey could cost as low as $400 or even $200,” Powell said. “It costs more money to move a bale across Los Angeles than from the Los Angeles pier to Hong Kong.”

Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s minister of environment, said she had no clue just how much plastic waste was being traded globally—that is, until bales upon bales of the stuff began appearing on her country’s shores.

“We didn’t feel the impact of just how much trash we have in the whole world until China banned it,” she said from her office in Putrajaya. “It wasn’t just a wake-up call for us. It was a wake-up call for the world.”

Yeo was appointed to her post last year after embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional party, which had ruled Malaysia for over 60 years, was ousted in the national elections.

There were, quite literally, fires for her to fight from Day One. Malaysians across the country complained of plastics being dumped and illegally burned in their neighborhoods. In Jenjarom, a group of community activists raised the alarm after locals, including children, began suffering en masse from headaches, respiratory problems, skin allergies and other ailments. Activists blamed the illnesses on the incessant and widespread burning by unlicensed recyclers around town.

One resident-turned-activist, Pua Lay Peng, said she noticed fewer butterflies and other insects on her walks around Jenjarom. “The sky was always hazy,” she said. “I felt so lethargic all the time.”

Since Yeo took office, she and her ministry have shuttered more than 130 illegal plastic waste recycling facilities, many of them in Jenjarom. Several of these recyclers have been charged in court and slapped with significant fines. She has vowed to be tough on unlicensed operators and said Malaysia is putting together new recycling-related regulations to ensure the country never becomes the “world’s dumping ground” again.

Malaysia, like Thailand and Vietnam, temporarily banned the import of plastic scrap last year. Yeo said that the ban will eventually be lifted but that the new regulations—which will be permanent and are slated to be introduced in the coming months—will limit the amount of contaminated plastic scrap allowed into the country. The rules governing recycling permits will also be strengthened, she said.

But activists have expressed skepticism about Malaysia’s plan to eradicate illegal recyclers. “The problem will be the same because enforcement and monitoring will be weak,” said C.K. Lee, a Jenjarom resident and community activist. “If they couldn’t properly enforce the earlier regulations, what makes them think they can do it now with even more rules?”

On a bright Saturday morning in February, Lee and other local activists alerted HuffPost to an illegal dumpsite that had been set alight on a Jenjarom palm oil plantation. Plumes of toxic smoke mushroomed out of the burning piles of plastic scrap. Local firefighters, none of them wearing masks, were already on site when we arrived, struggling to put out the blaze.

One firefighter told HuffPost that plastic fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish. Plus, since many of them in Malaysia are started in isolated areas, finding water to put them out can be an additional challenge. The fire we saw that morning took the firefighters hours to douse, after multiple trips back to the fire station to refill their water tanks.

“I wish the ministers could come here to see this for themselves,” said Pua, gesturing at the clouds of smoke as she covered her face with a mask.

“I wish the ministers could come here to see this for themselves,” said Pua, gesturing at the clouds of smoke as she covered her face with a mask.

Exacerbating the situation is the apparent resilience of the network of unlicensed recyclers. Akin to the Hydra from Greek mythology, two seem to appear for each one cut down.

While the illegal recycling activity was largely limited to the southern part of Peninsular Malaysia (like the town of Jenjarom and its surroundings) in early to mid-2018, that activity has steadily traveled north (to Ipoh and beyond) as the government has cracked down on unlicensed operators.

“They haven’t disappeared,” said Pua. “They just move somewhere else.”

Still, Yeo said she’s confident that Malaysia will soon be able to get the situation under control. But, she stressed, the conversation cannot stop there.

“This is a global problem” that requires a global solution, she said. “Yes, we can solve this domestically here in Malaysia, but we are all sharing the same ocean. The trash may end up in neighboring countries … and it will eventually come back to us. These are transboundary issues.”

Yeo said an international treaty aimed at making the global movement of plastic scrap more equitable and transparent is a critical and necessary step forward.

She said Malaysia supports a 2018 proposal from Norway that suggested adding plastic scrap to the list of materials covered by the Basel Convention, a 1992 treaty on the movement of hazardous waste between nations.

If such an amendment is approved, there would be stricter controls over the movement of plastic scrap across borders, and countries would not be allowed to export such materials to nations lacking the technical capacity to manage and dispose of that scrap in an environmentally sound manner.

It would also mandate that exporting countries seek consent from receiving nations before shipping the scrap. “It would give the recipient country an opportunity to say ‘no’—instead of being surprised, like in the case of Vietnam and Thailand, which were shocked when plastic waste started piling up last year,” said Hernandez.

For the United States, the world’s top exporter of plastic scrap, such an amendment could have an even greater impact. Though 185 countries and the European Union are parties to the Basel Convention, the US is not. If the amendment is approved, “many Basel Convention countries would be barred from accepting scrap plastic from non-party countries,” whether they give consent or not, Resource Recycling noted last year.

Yeo said citizens need to press their governments to embrace such an amendment or a treaty similar to it.

“The citizens of the developed world need to demand that their governments be transparent about the way they track their waste. Where exactly is your trash going? Where is your plastic going?” she said.

“[What] irritates me is the injustice. The injustice seeing people in the developing world suffering from the rubbish [originating] in developed countries. I don’t think citizens of these countries know what’s happening, maybe even lawmakers don’t know,” she added.

Yeo, who recently introduced an initiative to ban all single-use plastics in Malaysia by 2030, said people the world over also need to fundamentally change their relationship with plastic.

As the world’s population continues to balloon, the need to dramatically reduce plastic consumption will become ever more pressing, she said. One way to achieve this is to find viable, more sustainable alternatives to the ubiquitous material; improving recycling technology and infrastructure worldwide is also key, she added.

“It cannot be business as usual,” Yeo said.

This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.

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Tyranny of the Minority Slows International Progress on Addressing Plastic Pollution

Tyranny of the Minority Slows International Progress on Addressing Plastic Pollution


March 15, 2019

UNEA-4 Agreement Does Not Deliver at Scale and Urgency Needed

Nairobi, Kenya – At the 4th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4), member states of the UN Environment Programme failed to meet expectations to confront the ever-growing plastic-pollution crisis threatening our waterways, ecosystems, and health.

At UNEA-4, member states considered several resolutions designed to increase international action to halt plastic pollution. The first, proposed by Norway, Japan, and Sri Lanka, sought to strengthen international cooperation and coordination on marine plastic litter and microplastics, including through considering a possible new legally binding agreement. The second, proposed by India, sought to promote the phase-out single-use plastics worldwide.

Despite sweeping agreement by the majority of countries that urgent, ambitious, and global action is needed to address plastic across its lifecycle – from production to use to disposal – a small minority led by the United States (US) blocked ambitious text and delayed negotiations. Backed by a strong industry lobby with over $200 billion invested in petrochemical buildout to drastically expand plastic production, the US delegation was able to thwart progress and water down the resolutions, actions that were strongly opposed by many countries, including those most affected by plastic pollution, such as the Pacific Island States, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Senegal. Action-oriented member states did secure, however, the basic elements that will allow the building of future actions, based on the common vision that emerged among the vast majority of countries during the discussions. Most importantly, the mandate of the expert working group established at UNEA-3 was extended to continue its work, including by identifying technical and financial resources or mechanisms, and to report on its progress in considering response options at UNEA-5 in February 2021. The extension of this mandate keeps plastic on the international agenda and provides an opportunity to consider a future legally binding agreement.

Despite the overall disappointing outcome in not making progress at the speed and scale needed, countries remain committed to pursuing international cooperation and coordination to address the plastic-pollution crisis.

David Azoulay, Environmental Health Director, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL): “At UNEA-4, the vast majority of countries came together to develop a vision for the future of global plastic governance. Seeing the US, guided by the interests of the fracking and petrochemical industry, leading efforts to sabotage that vision is disheartening. But the growing appetite for better global plastic governance is evident, and this UNEA ensured the continuation of a process on which countries can build the future global framework to stop plastic pollution”

Von Hernandez, Global Coordinator, Break Free From Plastic: “Corporations should hear the call coming out of UNEA-4: Requirements for reduction are coming. They should support community zero-waste systems around the world by reducing the production of unmanageable waste and reinventing delivery structures for products to eliminate plastic packaging. We have a lot of collaborative work to do in the coming years to create policies and markets that are healthy, responsive to local needs, and based on systems of refill and reuse.”

Christopher Chin, Executive Director of The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE): “Waste management is an important part of the conversation, but it cannot effectively address the deluge of plastic pollution we all face. We cannot recycle our way out of this problem. While we are certainly disappointed that progress was stifled by industry-embracing obstacles imposed by a distinct few member states, we are encouraged by the otherwise near-universal support for forward action towards upstream solutions and discussions towards solutions considering the full lifecycle of plastics, including a potential new legally binding framework.”

Fabienne McLellan, Director International Relations, OceanCare: “One cannot help but note that we are heading for yet another failure by some governments to take real action due to nationalistic agendas. The problem is easy to understand, there is enough data, but the blockade of a few, powerful countries isn’t. We are leaving UNEA-4 without a strong decision and are sending a weak signal to the private sector. This is troubling as there should be clear guidance from international bodies towards a sustainable circular economy, a full lifecycle approach, and a call for a global governance architecture.”

Delphine Lévi Alvarès, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Zero Waste Europe: “The need to confront marine plastic pollution and single-use plastics are undeniably at the top of the global policy agenda, and Zero Waste initiatives at the local level have received recognition. The details of the final resolutions may be weak, but governments have real policy examples to follow, including the recently-adopted EU Directive on single-use plastics and bans on wasteful plastic products at the local and national level. These policies address the production and consumption drivers of plastic pollution. We salute the efforts of the countries and regions who stood strong in this debate in seeking equally ambitious action at the global level.”

Tim Grabiel, Senior Lawyer, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA): “Future generations will confront many indescribable problems due to a lack of political will to tackle head on the environmental issues of our time. We do not need to add plastic pollution to that list. Although we regret the lack of urgency displayed by a few bad-faith actors, we are encouraged that the expert group will be reconvened and expect progressive countries to use it as a launch pad for meaningful action at the next UNEA in February 2021.”

Tadesse Amera, CoChair, International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), Ethiopia:

“As the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries are gearing up to escalate plastic and chemical production, governments at UNEA-4 could not curb the power of these private interests. This is concerning as the volume of plastic pollution will grow too. Plastics are toxic. Toxic chemicals -linked to cancer and early puberty in children- are used to make plastics, yet this issue was neglected in the final UNEA-4 outcome. These toxic chemicals additives in plastic are released later, creating toxic liabilities for chemical and plastic producers. In Africa, imported plastic products and plastic waste should be returned back to the producers to protect us from the toxic chemicals in the plastic materials. The industries producing these harmful chemicals should have an extended producer responsibility, and they should pay the costs related to their toxic plastic waste mess. In the big picture, toxics in means toxics out. We can’t recycle toxic plastics and pretend that the marine litter chaos is a waste issues; it’s a toxic product issue.”

Jane Patton, Director, No Waste Louisiana: “Plastic is pollution the minute it is made. We must reduce the production and use of plastic across the board to protect communities and health. No people or places should be sacrificed to corporate profit or a culture of consumption, and we can avoid that by taking into account the full lifecycle impacts of plastics. We are optimistic about the ambitious steps our governments will take to prevent plastic pollution, including production reduction, phase out, and investment in zero-waste systems.”

David Sutasurya, Indonesian Zero Waste Alliance: “The plastic industry is polluting developing countries, where they have fewer options of non-plastic alternatives and are directly exposed to plastic pollution every day. Multinational corporations have systematically pushed out local industry that uses much less plastic, in addition to facilitating the import of waste into developing countries from the high-consumption Global North. It is unfair that developing countries are using taxpayers’ money to manage these wastes that can neither be recycled or composted. Framing marine litter as only a waste management problem is nonsense when it’s actually a reflection of the industry’s refusal to take responsibility on the plastic pollution crisis. Multinational companies, together with national plastic industries, are now actively blocking any government effort to hold them accountable and responsible for the waste of their product, including significant reduction of its uses. Developed countries and industries have to be responsible for the waste problem that they create in developing countries and should support legally binding measures on reduction of global plastic production and consumption.”


Media Inquiries:

Amanda Kistler, (Nairobi) WhatsApp +1 339 225 1623, akistler@ciel.org

Jane Patton, (Nairobi) WhatsApp +1 (225) 266-5534, jane@nowastela.org

Jed Alegado, (Philippines) WhatsApp +63 917 607 0248, jed@breakfreefromplastic.org

Background for editors:

Plastics have in been on the international policy agenda since UNEA-1, At UNEA-4, member states considered and approved four resolutions that either directly considered or referred to the global plastic crisis, especially in the form of marine litter. The preparation documents for UNEA-3 in December 2017 made clear that there are major gaps in the existing legal frameworks surrounding marine plastic litter, which have facilitated the growing crisis. Many countries and the UNEP Secretariat analyzed the failure of voluntary measures to meaningfully stop plastic pollution or marine litter in the long-term. Coming out of UNEA-3, states took a significant step to address those gaps by creating an Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group to more clearly consider the state of knowledge, gaps, and mechanisms for addressing the marine plastic litter issue. Between UNEA-3 and UNEA-4, the Expert Group created a summary of options for monitoring and for international governance to prevent and solve marine plastic litter. The Expert Group did not make recommendations for action to UNEA-4, however, as that was no included in its mandate.

At UNEA-4, the four resolutions adopted by consensus on Friday, March 15 were as follows. Largely across the board, the resolutions are missing any calls for production reduction of plastics or other chemical materials, and they largely focus on the waste management end of the problem. This ignores the significant role the plastics producers and the consumer goods corporations will be required to play in preventing plastic pollution and marine litter.

  • Marine Plastic Litter and Microplastics (a consolidated draft co-authored by Norway, Japan, and Sri Lanka): this was the main resolution proposing the creation of a Working Group to discuss options for action, including the creation of an international legally binding treaty with goals for both production reduction, policy change, and behavior change. Details on the scope of work, terms of reference, and meeting dates for this continued Expert Group are still lacking and will be determined by the UNEP Secretariat.
  • Phasing Out Single-Use Plastics Products (submitted by India): In a last-minute resolution submission, India took a bold step by proposing their planned national complete phase-out of single-use plastics by 2025 to become part of the international agenda. Chair put forward a significantly weakened compromise text that merely encouraged national action to address marine plastic litter, rather than the use and production of the plastic products themselves.
  • Environmentally Sound Management of Waste (submitted by League of Arab States): While again weakened from its original language, the adopted resolution calls on Member States to implement integrated waste management schemes, including zero waste, movement toward a circular economy, and minimization of packaging. As the resolution calls for significant investment and sharing of technology around waste management, there is concern that countries will adopt toxic and inefficient incineration (or waste-to-energy) schemes rather than taking preventative steps toward waste reduction.
  • Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste (submitted by the EU): This resolution mostly focused on strengthening international coordination on management of toxic chemicals (including Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) and other agreements). The resolution reiterated the need for a minimization of plastic packaging as a preventative measure and called for action on eliminating planned obsolescence of technology products, which often contain a significant amount of plastic.



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