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G7 leaders sign plastics pledge

Ocean Plastics Charter seeks to rein in mounting problem of waste

by Alexander H. Tullo
June 17, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 25


A photo of plastics on the shore in Hong Kong.
Credit: Ocean Conservancy
Plastic pileups such as this one on the Hong Kong shoreline are raising alarms.

Leaders at the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, turned up the heat on the ocean plastics issue by signing an agreement meant to boost recycling and reduce single-use plastics. The move was met with skepticism from some environmentalists, who are hungry for specific policies to tackle the problem, and with accelerated efforts from the plastics industry, which increasingly finds itself on the defensive.

Five countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K.—as well as the European Union signed the Ocean Plastics Charter. The U.S. and Japan abstained.

The document calls for working with industry to make all plastics reusable, recyclable, or recoverable by 2030. Additionally, the leaders want to recycle or reuse 55% of plastic packaging by 2030 and recover all plastics by 2040. They also want to significantly reduce single-use plastics.

The agreement seeks to address marine litter in “global hot spots” by helping such places develop waste management infrastructure. A lack of infrastructure makes some developing countries—namely, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam—the source of a majority of the plastics that wind up in the sea.

Additionally, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged $100 million toward reducing marine litter and plastic pollution.

“Plastics are one of the most revolutionary inventions of the past century and play an important role in our economy and daily lives,” the charter says. “However, the current approach to producing, using, managing and disposing of plastics poses a significant threat to the environment, to livelihoods and potentially to human health.”

Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group that has collaborated with industry, says the G7 leaders demonstrated a “new level of leadership” by signing the charter.

The environmental group Greenpeace says the charter doesn’t go far enough. “Voluntary charters focused on recycling and repurposing will not solve the problem at the source,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan said in a statement. “Governments must move beyond voluntary agreements to legislate binding reduction targets and bans on single-use plastics.”

While the U.S. didn’t sign the document, the American Chemistry Council, a leading trade group, is reacting to the mounting pressure on plastics. ACC CEO Cal Dooley has delayed his retirement by one year to the end of 2019 to lead the industry response to the plastic waste issue.

“While plastic products provide countless health, safety, lifestyle, and sustainability benefits, those benefits cannot be fully realized unless we take swift and aggressive actions to ... dramatically increase rates of reuse, recycling, and recovery,” Dooley says.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which advocates for a circular economy, says it will form a coalition of governments and businesses aimed at eliminating plastic waste. It says the effort will build on its New Plastics Economy initiative, which involves consumer product companies like Coca-Cola, Danone, and Pepsi, as well as chemical makers such as BASF, DuPont, and Novamont.


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