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US Should Have Signed The Plastics Charter
Yangzhou Chengsen Plastics Co.,Ltd | Updated: Jun 20, 2018

German Chancellor Angela Merkel/Instagram        German Chancellor Angela Merkel posted this photo of herself and other world leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G7 meeting.

The United States government should have signed the G7's plastics charter.

The document, agreed to by leaders of five of the G7 industrial democracies at their annual summit June 9, is a strong statement of their intention for more sustainable use of plastics.

Long term, I think not signing it will be a missed opportunity for the United States. Given the emerging consensus globally around plastics waste, it doesn't make sense that the Trump administration (and Japan, the other abstainer) would not endorse the charter.

I say that partly because daily, I see developments about industry pushing toward more environmentally friendly uses of plastics.

On June 18, as just one example, Volvo announced that by 2025 it plans to have 25 percent of the plastics used in every newly launched Volvo vehicle made from recycled content, which it said is part of a broader strategy to minimize its environmental footprint.

So it's not as if the charter is going in a direction that business is not already heading. And G7 documents are non-binding, they don't specifically limit government choices.

It's worth noting that all the specific commitments in the charter, like recycling and reusing 55 percent of plastics packaging by 2030, are at least a decade away.

Plenty of time to work on it, and if you don't meet the targets, I don't think any government would suffer political harm. Would voters in some distant election choose to "throw the bums out" over not meeting commitments in this relatively obscure thing called the plastics charter? No.

But ocean plastics and sustainability in general will remain big challenges, that will require everyone to be rowing in the same direction. Plastics News has given a lot of coverage to the charter in the last 10 days, and those (and related) stories have gotten some interesting comments on our website.

As one example, Balaji Singh, the founder and former president of Houston-based consulting firm Chemical Market Resources Inc., endorsed big changes in thinking on single-use plastics.

He noted that plastics have had a lot of positive impacts over the last four decades of consistent industry growth, like improving storage of perishable food.

But, Singh, with a career in plastics stretching several decades, wrote that he believes it's now time for a different way of thinking: "The plastics developments essentially 'jumped the shark' in the last 10 years and the damage they cause is far exceeding the benefits of 'single use' plastics. A time has now come for: (1) reducing the single use plastics and (2) spending time to innovate the processes to reduce the damage done over the last 40 years."

Industry trade groups, for their part, note that they put a lot of effort into combating marine plastics pollution, one area of major concern of the plastics charter.

The American Chemistry Council's plastics division put out a statement after the summit noting that it's committed to being part of the solutions to marine plastics litter and welcoming the chance to collaborate on various initiatives in the charter.

Of course, the details are where the disagreements will come. For example, should incineration be counted to meet targets for reducing plastics pollution? And how should societies get to the ambitious recycling and reuse targets in the charter?

The U.S. lags international best practices in recycling one of the most visible forms of plastics packaging, PET beverage bottles. Europe recycles 59 percent of its PET bottles, while the U.S. only manages 28 percent.

Maybe that's an indicator of why the U.S. government declined to sign the charter — we're already lagging in some aspects of plastics environmental policy and Washington doesn't want to highlight that.

Or maybe the plastics charter is caught up in bigger disagreements over climate policy, or in President Donald Trump's distrust of multilateral agreements. The G7 summit clearly had more immediate topics, like Kim Jong Un and not blowing up the world trading system!

I asked both the White House and the State Department for an explanation on the plastics charter. The State Department referred me to the White House, which has not replied to messages.

I also asked the Japanese embassy in Washington for comment, but it too has not replied.

Some U.S. ocean policy advocates I talked with said they hope Washington will nonetheless participate in detailed discussions later this year on how to move forward with the charter, even if they've not signed it.

In the end, perhaps not endorsing a non-binding plastics charter won't matter, the key work will continue regardless.

But it's important symbolism, and I think we'll look back in a few years and think the U.S. government, my government, made a mistake in not signing.

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