A U.N. Treaty on Plastics?

The oil-and-gas industry is clearly tying its hope for future profit to plastics

By Thomas Neuburger

A short pre–New Year's note to note the usual about the plastics problem — that there's too much of it, that the industry wants to keep making it, and that the reporting press, at least some of it, appears to be covering for industry even when they try not to.

Case in point, this piece being passed around on many climate social media sites from the usually wonderful Inside Climate News (my emphasis everywhere):

World Talks on a Treaty to Control Plastic Pollution Are Set for Nairobi in February. How To Do So Is Still Up in the Air
Environmentalists want national limits on plastic waste, producer responsibility and caps on production. Industry favors better waste management and “advanced” chemical repurposing.

Notice the 'on the one hand'–'on the other hand' subhead. It sets the terms of the debate fairly and with appropriate skepticism. Focusing for now, not on the article, but on the content, here's the gist:

Governments are taking steps to rein in plastic waste.
But none of what’s been done so far has been up to the challenge of a growing plastics industry fed by consumer demand for more plastic products, resulting in a deepening global plastic waste crisis.
As a result, there is now an intensifying focus on the possibility of a global treaty to control plastic pollution.
The next milestone in a diplomatic process that began in 2014 could come in February, in Nairobi, Kenya, when the U.N. Environmental Assembly meets to decide if it will endorse the beginning of official negotiations over a plastics treaty.
Those efforts may have received a boost in late November, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the Biden administration would join the talks. Blinken, reversing a position from the Trump administration, said the U.S. goal is to “create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all of the life that they sustain from growing global harms of plastic pollution.”

And this characterization is entirely fair:

The chemical industry and environmental groups alike have welcomed U.S. engagement in formal treaty talks, with environmental groups like Greenpeace citing the need for global solutions to a global problem, and the chemical industry expressing hope that a treaty could help advance its vision of eliminating plastic waste. Separately, the industry has opposed suggestions that there be a cap placed on plastic production.

Those are indeed the terms of the disagreement. Humans who live on this planet want this to stop, and the industry is glad to appear to agree, so long as there is no cap placed on production.

Two Ways to Make a Plastics Treaty

As a result, when it comes time to talk about implementation, approach matters. there are two:

One school of thought focuses on a “lifecycle” approach that would take into account the impacts of plastics, from production to their use and disposal or recycling. It’s led by Rwanda and Peru, with support from the European Union, and could limit virgin plastic production and control the use of toxic chemicals that are added into plastic products, Beeler said.
The other takes a “waste management” approach and would focus more narrowly on strategies to control plastic waste. This orientation has been defined under a draft resolution from Japan, he said.

You know where industry falls on that spectrum — fully on "waste management" — and the piece makes that clear. It also makes clear that though Anthony Blinken, Biden's man in the discussions, wants a treaty, it's unclear what kind of treaty he wants — which means Biden wants the wrong kind, if Biden stays true to his pro–oil and gas industry roots.

Where Does the 'Demand' for Plastics Really Come From?

But the unaddressed elephant in the plastic room is demand. Where does it come from, if so many people are opposed to its use?

The Inside Climate News article, with a slight-of-hand in the very first paragraph (quoted above), makes a point the industry would love to have you believe is true. If you didn't notice it when you read it above, the important sentence is this one (again, emphasis mine):

a growing plastics industry fed by consumer demand for more plastic products, resulting in a deepening global plastic waste crisis

So consumers are demanding more plastic, colloquially you and me? Not truen if you click the link. The underlying piece ("Polymer’s long-term demand prospects sharpens potential role for chemical feedstocks"), from an industry "insights" column, mentions the word "consumer" just twice. The first is a reference to "consumer products," not consumer demand:

In the medium-run, demand for packaging for consumer products is expected to grow exponentially. FedEx predicts that home deliveries in the US will double to 100 million packages per day by 2026.

Notice that the demand it mentions is industry's demand, not the end customer's. The example makes that clear — it's FedEx that needs the packaging, and it's FedEx that's (presumably) sold on the idea that the packaging must be plastic.

The second mention reverses the assumption of the Inside Climate News article:

If Platts Analytics' feedstock models are calibrated at the country-level to the prevailing consumption rates in the US and UK, annual demand for single-use plastics would reach as high as 510 million mt, more than 1/3 higher than today's total polymer supply.
Instead, Platts Analytics projects that regulatory measures and changing consumer habits could see per capita consumption rates in the US, the UK, and other OECD member states decline over the long-term.

The consumer mentioned in the first paragraph above is industry, not the end-user. The actual consumer — recipients of all this profitable plastic crap — are said in the second paragraph to be using much less plastic. Presumably voluntarily.

All of which is to say that Inside Climate News, inadvertently or carelessly, actually did industry's bidding by again putting the onus on the public — in effect saying with the purveyors of the stuff, "We're all in this mess because you moms and dads wanted it this way. You want to get out of this mess? Recycle more (while we take your money to the bank)."

Industry's strategy in all of these discussions is to make it your fault for not being good enough, for not recycling enough, not theirs for being so very bad to begin with. All because of one thing: the psychopathic greed of the already rich.

Someone should write Inside Climate News a little letter.

(To read all of my work, visit God's Spies at More information here and here.)