A big part of the problem, she says, is those little single-use plastic fish and food packages and the death of the “refill system”: “When I was a kid, I would go to a store and bring my bottle and stuff [buy] maybe five or 10 [Philippine] pesos from [cooking] Oil. This was the traditional way in most cultures of the region.
“That all changed when sachets and single-use plastic were introduced.”
But that’s not even the worst of it.
A global system
The world produces around 1.8 billion tons of waste every year. According to one report, if all of this was loaded onto dump trucks, the line would orbit the planet 24 times.
Around a tenth of this waste ends up in the global waste trade. Essentially, this means that rich countries send their waste to less economically advanced countries such as those in Southeast Asia.
Around 12 percent of municipal solid waste generated in the US is plastic, equivalent to 32.4 million metric tons in 2018. Countries like the US, Canada and South Korea are among the top waste exporters. In 2018, the US transported an average of 429 large shipping containers containing plastic waste alone each day.
Since China banned the import of garbage from 2017, much of that garbage now ends up in Africa and Asia. Because these countries are often ill-equipped to deal with the influx — in Southeast Asia, 75 percent of it isn’t recycled — it means much of it ends up in waterways or oceans, either through direct dumping or simply being washed there by rain.
Greenpeace reported a 171 percent increase to almost 2.25 million tons annually in plastic waste imported from Southeast Asian countries between 2016 and 2018.
Adding to this surging tide of plastic waste is a tsunami of plastic unleashed around the world by COVID-19 measures since early 2020. In the early stages of the outbreak, an NGO reported that there were already 1.5 billion mostly plastic-based surgical masks in the world’s oceans. By 2021, an additional 140 million used test kits, 144,000 syringes and packages from 8 billion vaccine doses were generated as governments tried to contain the virus.
Pandemic measures have also caused many Asian waste companies to go into lockdown, ensuring plants are not operating and workers are stuck at home even as the plastic continues to pour in. Without exception, the waste is disposed of, often illegally through opaque waste trade channels.
A new business?
At the entrance to the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya in February, stood an extraordinarily powerful sculpture by Canadian artist Benjamin von Wong: a faucet hanging in the sky spews a stream of plastic waste onto the grass in front of the square.
Maybe it made a difference because the meeting ended with a big decision to end all plastic pollution by 2024.
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said in a statement the agreement between 175 member states was “the most important environmental deal since the Paris climate accord”.
Susan Gardner, director of UNEP’s Ecosystems Division, says: “Countries have said, ‘We want to do something about plastics and it’s urgent. We take this so seriously that we believe something legally binding is required.’”
Gardner pointed to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which took about five years to implement in 2017. “In this case, member states are so determined … that they want to do it about half the time. That ambition, both in substance and pace, is unprecedented.”
Big money lags
But even a solid UN agreement may not be enough.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been tracked since the 1980s and measures over 1.55 million square kilometers – more than twice the size of Texas. In 2016, it was predicted that it would be 2050 before ocean plastic outweighed sea life. Now it looks like we may be reaching that decade.
One can imagine nations sticking to their own measurements under a UN convention while pushing the plastic waste problem offshore and into the oceans.
Against this background, Aguilar notes that a regional process is underway through the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). This led to the Bangkok Declaration in 2019.
But Aguilar says that agreement “does not look at reduction, it does not look at the source. So it was kind of problematic; cure more than prevent.”
This source has a name. More specifically, there are around a hundred names of companies that are largely responsible for the production of single-use plastics.
According to the Australian NGO Minderoo Foundation, around 60 percent of the total investment in these companies comes from just 20 big banks such as Barclays, HSBC and Bank of America.
The organization reported in 2021 that “20 asset managers — led by US firms Vanguard Group, BlackRock and Capital Group — hold over $300 billion worth of stock in the parent companies of single-use plastic polymer makers.
“Of that, $10 billion is directly related to the manufacture of single-use polymers.”
As Minderoo noted, Pennsylvania-based Vanguard Group is a significant investor in the sector. The asset manager invests in a number of the world’s top 10 plastics manufacturers.
In an email statement, a Vanguard spokesperson said, “Regardless of the industry, we expect companies to consider government policies, obligations and regulations in their strategies and plans, particularly when the policy … results in a material risk.”
A company report from 2021 notes that the investor has met 734 companies from 29 industries as part of its stewardship program. The categories of exposure are based on governance and material risk. Plastic is not mentioned in the report, although four of the top 10 plastics producers (including the group’s two US-based companies, ExxonMobil and Dow) were hit.
Given that most of these companies are transnational conglomerates, and given the listed categories of asset manager involvement, it seems unlikely that the issue of plastic pollution was included in any of these formal meetings. As international and regional organizations appear to be growing more ambitious in curbing plastic pollution in oceans and elsewhere, the corporate sector appears to be lagging behind, according to these findings.
UNEP’s Gardner notes that given current trends, we will double our already gargantuan plastic footprint “in the next decade or so”: “It’s very much how we use plastic that has caused this problem .”
She adds the solution “requires systemic changes across the value chain.” This will almost certainly increase the pressure on plastics manufacturers in the coming years.
JJ Rose is an Australian-based author and avid bodysurfer.