As awareness increases across the globe about the growing crisis of plastic waste, one would think that it would be common sense for nations to come to some form of agreement to limit plastic pollution.
Such was the case last Friday when over 180 countries joined a historic United Nations agreement to take new steps to monitor and track plastic waste beyond their borders and regulate its trade.
However, the U.S. was one of only a handle of countries that refused to join the agreement, which took the form of an amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal, a convention backed by 187 countries excluding the U.S.
The U.S. is currently the top exporter of plastic waste, according to advocacy group Break Free From Plastic. While the U.S. was present at the negotiations for the amendment, as a non-signatory to the convention it was unable to vote. However, U.S. representatives argued against the measure, claiming that the agreement would harm the trade in plastic waste.
Governments have amended the Basel Convention to include plastic waste in a legally-binding framework which will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent & better regulated. 👏👏👏 https://t.co/UPGsDfIMYy
— UN Environment Programme (@UNEP) May 12, 2019
According to the UK Independent, UN Environment’s Executive Secretary of the three conventions Rolph Payet hailed the “historic” amendment and said it would send a “very strong political signal to the rest of the world – to the private sector, to the consumer market – that we need to do something.”
Plastics and microplastics have inundated the world’s oceans and water supplies, leaching carcinogenic toxins and chemicals into the marine environment, with plastic drink containers trapping and confining – and ultimately killing – marine wildlife.
The pollution has reached such massive proportions that an estimated 100 million tons of plastic can now be found in the oceans, according to the UN. Between 80 and 90 per cent of it comes from land-based sources.
According to a report prepared for the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by 2050 it is estimated that plastic waste in the ocean will outweigh all fish.
“Countries have decided to do something which will translate into real action on the ground.”
A wide array of products in various industries will be affected by the deal, including but not limited to food and beverages, fashion, aerospace, health care, high technology, and motor vehicles. Customs agents will likely be instructed to look out for electronics and other forms of potentially hazardous waste that previously faced less scrutiny in transnational trade.
While the United States abstained from signing on to the deal, it will feel its effects as it attempts to ship plastic waste to those countries that were signatories to the convention. Exporters like the U.S. will now have to obtain consent from any countries receiving unrecyclable, contaminated, or mixed plastic waste – a major change from the current situation which allows the U.S. and other countries to ship low-quality plastic waste to private entities in the Global South, according to The Guardian.
Paul Rose, the expedition leader of the National Geographic Pristine Seas Expeditions, told the Independent that shifting tides of public opinion helped ensure a consensus during the negotiations. Rose said:
“It was those iconic images of the dead albatross chicks on the Pacific Islands with their stomachs open and all recognizable plastic items inside it, and most recently, it’s been when we discovered the nano-particles do cross the blood-brain barrier, and we were able to prove that plastic is in us.”
In a press release, Payet also credited an online petition entitled “Stop dumping plastic in paradise!”, which gained nearly one million signatures, as indicating the high level of public awareness and demands for action.
However, as fracked natural gas supplies increase in the United States, the cost of producing and exporting plastics has become cheaper, making the plastic market hugely profitable and attractive once again for multinational fossil fuel and petrochemical industries.
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