India’s proposal for a global ban on single-use plastic was scuttled last week by U.S. objections, a move that environmental groups call the latest example of the Trump administration’s continued weakening of international environmental agreements.
The clash led to the adoption of guidelines under the United Nations Environment Assembly on plastic waste management that were more or less in line with the U.S. demands instead of a plastics ban. That outcome triggered alarms among Indian lawmakers that their country will bear the brunt of the compromise through increased ocean pollution.
“It’s once again a signal that the U.S. is no longer leading on these international issues,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy, told Bloomberg Environment.
While decisions under the Environment Assembly are non-binding, backing a ban “would have sent a signal” that countries intended to at least begin tackling the enormous production of single-use plastic bags, water bottles, and other plastic containers, he said.
“The U.S. rationale was, ‘We’re a major producer of plastics and our industry says the solution is responsible reuse and recycling, certainly not a ban,’” Rosenberg said.
He also said U.S. plastics aren’t likely to walk away from cheaper plastics production driven by a boom in U.S. natural gas, which is used to make plastics.
State Department Response
The U.S. State Department defended its position in a March 19 statement to Bloomberg Environment, saying it welcomes efforts to reduce the impact of plastics in the environment but believes a ban is unworkable.
“The United States recognizes that marine plastic pollution is an important and growing issue, and that urgent action is needed to reduce the release of plastic into the environment,” a State Department spokesperson said in the statement.
The department said the U.S. and other countries “are taking ambitious action to reduce plastic pollution,” but “we do not believe in a prescriptive approach where we target a specific product type because it is the subject of regulation in some countries, and with no consideration of the associated environmental consequences.”
After it committed to eliminate single-use plastic in the country by 2022, India brought its effort to the international stage with a proposal urging “all Member States to step up actions to phase out all single-use plastic products by 2025.”
“In other parts of the world, the waste management system is quite good so the impact of plastic and littering is minimal,” said Manoj Kumar Gangeya, a director at the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. “But all plastic will eventually find its way into the ocean, and oceans are common good,” he said.
He added that all countries have to do their part, and India wants to show that if single-use plastic can be phased out in a developing country facing huge enforcement issues, others can follow suit.
The working document originally presented by the Indian delegation notes that only 9 percent of the 9 billion tonnes of plastics the world has ever produced have been recycled.
If current consumption patterns and waste management practices do not change, it said, “by 2050 there will be around 12 billion metric tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment.”
Managing, Not Banning, Single-Use Plastics
The final document approved on March 14—and soon to be officially ratified—talks about “significantly reducing single-use plastic products by 2030,” without specifying the scale and scope of such reduction.
The resolution will need to be assessed to determine its costs, said a U.N. spokesperson.
“Once that is done, member states would have to contribute funding to its full implementation,” the spokesperson said.
At first, India’s proposal was met with questions about how such an ambitious goal could be implemented, but its vision quickly gained support from most countries, said David Azoulay, environmental health program director with the nonprofit law firm Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
“But the U.S. [delegation] was absolutely against considering the very idea of recommending a phaseout,” he said. “They only wanted to consider this as an issue of waste management, and made it quite clear in the room that plastic is only an issue if it’s not managed properly.”
This, Azoulay explained, is problematic because it neglects other issues related to plastic production, including environmental and health impacts as well as marine pollution.
The Threat of Polluted Oceans
Arvind Kumar Nautiyal, joint secretary at the Indian environment ministry, said that the interest shown at the U.N. assembly in India’s proposal is encouraging, and that India will go ahead with its domestic targets for the elimination of single-use plastic.
However, he said, “plastic that is managed on land is not the worst concern, or at least not as serious as the waste that finds its way into streams and then the ocean.”
Criticizing the idea that segregating and recycling plastic on land is a sufficient response to the problem, he said that managing waste is more challenging once it enters the water, affecting marine environments and biodiversity.
“Some countries are saying, ‘Why don’t we just improve management?’ but then the issue remains, because plastic pollution knows no boundaries,” he added.
“The U.S.’ stance is understandable,” conceded Vivek Adhia, head of business engagement at the think tank World Resources Institute India. “If you look at the distribution of these single-use materials, North America produces 21 percent of the world’s single-use plastic.”
He said that focusing on recycling and management instead of directly eliminating plastic makes sense in the context of the U.S. economy, as it makes sure that homegrown industries are taken care of.
“There are ways to help transition to ambitious goals over time,” he added.
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