G20 Plan to Halt Ocean Plastic Pollution Is Toothless

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CC BY 4.0. Weston Fuller

No detailed guidelines, no legally binding requirements, and a misplaced focal point are a recipe for failure.

This past weekend's G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, resulted in a new goal to stop plastic waste leaking into the oceans by 2050. This is the date by which there is predicted to be more plastic than fish by weight in the world's oceans. Twenty of the world's biggest economies said they would take action to reduce marine plastic litter by adopting a "comprehensive life-cycle approach."

If this sounds like greenwashed mumbo-jumbo to you, you're not alone. Critics of the so-called 'Osaka Blue Ocean Vision' point out that there was very little discussion as to how countries are supposedly going to achieve their noble goal, nor is any of it legally binding; countries are expected to make appropriate changes voluntarily.

Far too much of the discussion focuses on how to manage the current volume of plastic waste, rather than question its existence. In the opinion of Yukihiro Misawa, plastics policy manager at WWF Japan, via Reuters:

"It’s a good direction. But they’re too focused on waste management. The most important thing is to reduce the excessive amount of production on the global level."

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he wants Japan to "lead the world in this mission, including by developing biodegradables and other innovative alternatives." (We already know that biodegradable plastics don't work.) He also said Japan will subsidize developing nations' efforts to "develop capacity to cope with plastic garbage and draw up national action plans," and will train 10,000 waste management officials around the world by 2025.

It's curious that Japan is positioning itself as a leader in this area, considering that it is the second biggest user of disposable plastic packaging globally after the United States, and is only in the process of reviewing a law to charge for plastic bags, whereas numerous other countries have had bans on bags and other disposable plastic items in place for years.

Neil Tangri of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives in Berkeley, California, called the conversation very disappointing.

"The focus is on collecting and disposing of plastics instead of reducing the quantity produced. Japan has the opportunity to lead on this issue by reducing the production and use of plastic. They’re fumbling the opportunity."

Indeed, this is something we've been saying on TreeHugger for years – that the root of the problem must be addressed. Better recycling is not the solution – our efforts are like "hammering a nail to halt a falling skyscraper" – but better consumption systems are, and these can only be created through stricter regulation of manufacturing and retail packaging. The emphasis must be on reusability and true biodegradability, not on waste management.

Sadly, this will be just another round of empty, enthusiastic problems getting us nowhere.