The World Just Took a Major Step to Curb Plastic Pollution, But the U.S. Refused to Join Effort

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Nearly every country in the world except the United States took a historic step to curb plastic waste last week, when more than 180 nations agreed to add plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty that regulates the movement of hazardous materials between countries. The U.S. is one of just two countries that has not ratified the 30-year-old treaty. During negotiations last week in Geneva, the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department joined the plastics industry in trying to thwart the landmark legally binding agreement. Despite this, the United States will still be affected by the agreement, because countries will be able to block the dumping of mixed or unrecyclable plastic wastes from other nations. The amended treaty will make it much more difficult for wealthy countries to send their plastic waste to poorer nations by prohibiting countries from exporting plastic waste that is not ready for recycling. The U.N. estimates there are 100 million tons of plastic waste in the world’s oceans. We speak with Pam Miller, co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network and executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with the growing crisis of plastic pollution. Nearly every country in the world—but not the United States—took a historic step to curb plastic waste last week, when more than 180 nations agreed to add plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty that regulates the movement of hazardous materials between countries. The U.S. is one of just two countries that has not ratified the 30-year-old treaty. During negotiations last week in Geneva, the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department joined the plastics industry in trying to thwart the landmark legally binding agreement. Despite this, the United States will still be affected by the agreement, because countries will be able to block the dumping of mixed or unrecyclable plastic wastes from other nations. The amended treaty will make it much more difficult for wealthy countries to send their plastic waste to poorer countries by prohibiting nations from exporting plastic waste that is not ready for recycling. Only around 9% of plastic is recycled.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. estimates there are 100 million tons of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

Well, for more, we go to Anchorage, Alaska, where we’re joined by Pam Miller, co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN. It’s a global network of NGOs dedicated to a toxics-free future. Miller is also executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Pam. It’s great to have you in from Alaska.

PAM MILLER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what the U.S. is refusing to do and the significance of the problem?

PAM MILLER: Yes. It was appalling, really, to see the U.S. government behave in the way that they did at the Basel Convention last week, especially knowing that they’re not a party to the convention, and yet they tried to thwart efforts to establish plastics waste under the Basel Convention, because they have a vested interest. The U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of plastics, mostly to developing nations. And this has created a global crisis of waste in countries in South and Central Asia, as well as South America and Africa.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Explain how this entire process works. Is it possible for these developing countries to refuse to accept this plastic waste?

PAM MILLER: Under the new amendment to the Basel Convention, which had been proposed by Norway in 2018, yes, developing countries will now have the right to refuse imports from developed countries, such as the U.S., so that they will have the right to refuse dirty plastics, mixed waste, that have created such a huge problem in so many countries, particularly in Asia, where we see that, as you mentioned, most of these plastics cannot truly be recycled, so they’re essentially dumped on the land adjacent to communities, where these plastics are burned, creating a huge health hazard to many communities in these developing nations.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, last year—it was just last year that China put a ban on foreign waste imports. Can you talk about how much plastic waste was going to China and where that waste is now going?

PAM MILLER: Yes. So, China did make this landmark decision, which was really important for their country to have the right to refuse this dirty plastic waste that’s highly toxic. These plastics are not only a physical hazard in the environment, but they’re also a human health hazard because they contain many toxic additives such as phthalates and bisphenols and persistent pollutants that are endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals. So, a country such as China made the decision, because this was such a huge problem in their country, to have the right to refuse it. Unfortunately, then, the U.S. began shipping it to other countries in Asia, such as Indonesia, as well as India, Malaysia and others.

AMY GOODMAN: American explorer Victor Vescovo recently broke the record for the deepest dive ever, when he descended nearly seven miles into the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench. On the ocean floor, he saw new species of crustaceans, but he also found a plastic bag and candy wrappers. This is Vescovo speaking shortly after the dive.

VICTOR VESCOVO: It wasn’t completely surprising, although it was very disappointing, to see obvious human contamination of the deepest point in the ocean. Because when I first got to the bottom, it seemed very pristine, almost like a moonscape. And I did see life.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s American explorer Victor Vescovo. If you can respond to that, Pam? And also, just describe the scope of the problem. I mean, how large are these plastic islands that are floating around the world right now?

PAM MILLER: The problem of plastics in the ocean is just immense. I mean, the plastics in the Pacific Ocean are just a huge mass of hundreds of thousands of acres of plastics in a huge plastic dump in the Pacific Ocean. So, it’s an immense problem.

And it’s not just a physical threat in the marine environment, but as these plastics break up—certainly we’ve all seen the images of how plastics can choke sea life such as sea turtles and marine mammals and birds—but as these plastics break up, they create an even more insidious problem. They become microplastics, which then can be ingested by marine animals such as fish, marine mammals and others, which then pose a threat to human health, because these plastics at sea not only contain toxic additives in themselves, but when they’re at sea, they absorb persistent pollutants such as PCBs, flame-retardant chemicals such as PBDEs. These are highly persistent toxics, and these plastics simply continue to absorb these toxic chemicals. Then, when they’re ingested by marine life, these toxics are conveyed into the bodies of these animals, which then create a problem for human health, because we rely on fish and other marine life as a source of food.

So it’s a very serious not only physical and unsightly problem in the marine environment, but it’s also a toxic problem, that we really have to solve by stopping the production of plastic upstream. The production of plastic relies on fossil fuels, and, ultimately, this is also a contributor to climate change. So the entire cycle of plastics production, waste disposal and use is really a toxic hazard.

AMY GOODMAN: And circling back to the United States refusing to sign on to this global treaty, talk more about the significance of the U.S., the most powerful player in the world, certainly a historic polluter when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. What does it mean when they don’t sign on to a treaty that would curb plastics?

PAM MILLER: Well, the U.S. is not a very good player in the international convention arena, including the three chemical conventions that have met over the past three weeks, including the Basel Convention, the Rotterdam Convention and the Stockholm Convention. The U.S. is party to none of those treaties. However, the U.S. Department of State and EPA show up and, in the case of the Basel Convention, played a very negative role in trying to persuade a small handful of countries to go against the will of the majority of the countries who really wanted to include plastics in the Basel Convention.

So the U.S. played an extremely negative role. Their position that they vocalized in the plenary sessions and also in the contact groups that met to hash out the amendments really mirrored the positions of the plastics and the chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council was there representing the major petrochemical manufacturers. There were plastic waste trade companies and associations. The U.S. position was essentially the same. So it was really not only disappointing, but appalling, as an American citizen, in an international arena such as this, to see the U.S. behaving so badly.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Pam Miller, co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network, known as IPEN, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, speaking to us from Anchorage, Alaska.

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