A Global Response to a Global Problem
8.3 billion metric tons — that’s the amount of plastic produced so far in the history of mankind. That’s enough to fill the Empire State Building 25,000 times from its base to the radio antenna, the Eiffel Tower 822,000 times, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur close to 225,000 times, and the Statue of Liberty, from pedestal to torch, 37 million times. And in the ocean? By 2050 — and that is within many of our lifetimes — there are going to be more plastic particles in the ocean than even the number of fish.
Synthetic plastic has become the prototypical material of the modern convenience-based lifestyle since its invention just 160 years ago. Need a way to carry your groceries? A plastic bag is ideal. Want a cheap, flexible, and robust material to produce your goods on a low budget? Plastic is the go-to ingredient. In fact, plastic has become an essential part of our daily life due to its indispensability as the miracle material. But this indispensability comes at a high price. Plastic does not decompose naturally. That means the plastic wrap that you discarded today will stay around for at least the next 5,000 years. During that time, countless storks and turtles will die from being suffocated from leftover plastic fragments, river ways will be blocked, and another million seahorses will mistake plastic waste for twigs they can latch on to for survival. And it is getting worse. The equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the ocean and 1 million new soda bottles are created every minute.
That’s the enormity of the global plastic problem.
Many ideas have been put forth on how to fight this scourge. Improving consciousness about plastic mismanagement or investing in trash cleanup systems for disposing plastic are among just a few. Most of these solutions rely on users to recycle plastic materials, putting the responsibility on them. Sadly, the fact that the problem stays unsolved speaks volume of the effectiveness of such solutions.
To see why, we should first recognize that plastic waste is not a local, but a global problem. Plastic produced by one country quickly spreads everywhere through waterways and ocean currents. Because of this, plastic waste can be found on every continent including Antarctica. Although an individual community can do its part to help, it can do very little to stop the scourge of the plastic problem around the world. For plastic waste to really be handled on the international level, we, as a country, must exert our influence around the globe. This means we must formulate a bipartisan foreign policy, engaging other governments around the world to act in this regard. This is akin to U.S. as a nation recognizing AIDS as a security threat rather than a health crisis about a decade ago.
In this article, let’s take a fresh look at the problem for a new pathway to a solution — using our country’s foreign policy as a device for mitigating plastic waste.
In fact, a majority of the UN members recently signed an international treaty, the Basel Agreement, that touched upon this. This treaty will control plastic waste crossing international boundaries and prevents impoverished countries from becoming dumpsites for the rich. This is a good first step but is not enough. There is no point in limiting trans-boundary plastic transportation when the plastic production itself is set to rise by about 40% over just the next decade.
The straightforward fix to the plastic pollution problem would be to reduce the amount of plastic entering our environment, particularly to the ocean, just as we would do for any chemical waste problem. But plastic pollution is not just a chemical waste problem. Much of the plastic today is produced and consumed outside of the United States. Plastic has a definite worldwide supply chain and the livelihood of those involved in that supply chain depends on plastic. Looking at plastic through the lens of waste management alone will not solve the problem. We must address the underlying global economic issue as well.
And precisely because of the universal nature of this problem, we need a global solution — something that our country’s foreign policy alone can effectively control.
Here is a 3–point foreign policy that addresses all of the above.
Policy 1: Reduce global plastic waste going into the oceans to 4 million metric tons by year 2030.
Policy 2: Set up a global economic fund to aid in the phasing out of plastic.
Policy 3: Implement the above using financial incentives or embargoes, as necessary.
Let’s dive deeper into these policies and see how they would fit with the rest of the foreign policies of our country.
The centerpiece of such a foreign policy obviously would be to decrease global plastic usage and to limit the amount of plastic discharge into the oceans. But by how much? The current rate of discharge is about 8 million metric tons. Our goal needs to be not too ambitious, but sizable enough to have an impact. A reduction of 4 million metric tons by 2030 meets both these ends.
How do we achieve this goal? This is where an international treaty comes into picture. We need to craft an agreement with our allies and partner countries worldwide such that it meets their priorities while not being too vulnerable for exploitation. Each country’s goals will depend on their capabilities and dependence on plastic products. To ensure the treaty is being upheld globally, all signatories to the agreement must maintain transparency. Since rivers and other water bodies do not abide by international boundaries while carrying plastic from one country to another, both landlocked and on-shore countries have equal responsibility to make this agreement a success. Therefore, each of these countries has to set a viable annual target that works up to meet the overall global goal. An international body, like the UN, shall supervise this process.
How do we reward a country that attains or exceeds its goals? Needless to say, the policy will work best when there is a financial incentive. To acknowledge progress, a financial reward system must be set up, which is a perfect segway to our second policy statement.
A global fund needs to be set up to serve the following four areas: (1) to reward and encourage countries that achieve or exceed their goals in plastic containment, (2) to subsidize major plastic producers so that they can decrease the amount of plastic they produce with minimal damage to their economies, (3) to subsidize locally available plastic alternatives and fund research for more advanced alternatives in the future, and most importantly, (4) to incentivize development of plastic alternative products.
What makes a material a suitable alternative to plastic? In short, it should have all the good qualities of plastic but none of the evil. First of all, it should be biodegradable. One of the main problems with plastic is its uncanny ability to not succumb to the forces of nature. And this level of material endurance has proven fatal to life. The alternative material should still be cost-effective and globally producible, just like the material it is going to replace.
We are few steps away today to find such a material, though there are a few potential interim solutions. These include bagasse, a waste product of sugarcane production, mycelium, which are mushroom roots, and other plant-based and natural products. There are two ways these materials can be utilized. Countries that are major producers of alternative products can be subsidized by economic powers to export these products to countries that need them, creating additional revenue for the producing country.
In parallel, we must use the global fund to invest in research work for creating new economically and practically viable alternatives to plastic. It may take time for the new alternative to come out, but with sufficient funding, appropriate global support, and collaboration of scientists internationally, it can be done.
How would such a fund be financed? It could be supported by a global tax on plastic exports (recall, 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute), donations by economic powers, or a global organization, like the United Nations.
A foreign policy might exist, but someone needs to enforce it. The third part of the foreign policy would deal with a country that does not meet its stated goal deliberately. In such cases, other nations can enforce economic sanctions and other repercussions.
Let’s also keep in mind that the agreement is completely voluntary. To help ensure a flexible platform, a country is allowed to leave the agreement. But, of course, they would lose any economic incentive to stay within the agreement.
The foundations laid out in this article are only the first step towards implementation. A lot of hard work and countless hours of international negotiation must follow. These policies must be a stated priority goal of all subsequent foreign policy decisions of our country, and we should ensure that any preceding agreement that contradicts this policy must be amended to comply with this goal.
Can the monstrous scourge of 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic be finally eliminated within our lifetimes? The answer could be “yes” — if only we utilize our country’s foreign policy to its fullest.