By Yvan BOURGNON, Navigator, President and Founder of The SeaCleaners
China has just announced, without notice, the complete ban of many single-use plastics by 2025. As soon as by the end of 2020, non-reusable bags and straws will be completely banned in major cities across the country. This is the first serious step towards tackling the problem of plastic waste in a country that remains the world’s largest producer and consumer of plastics.
The radical nature of this measure and the speed at which it will be implemented is impressive. And I can’t help but draw a parallel between this “Chinese revolution” and the timidity of the French government on the subject of single-use plastics.
The “anti-waste and circular economy” bill, which has just been adopted by the French Parliament, provides for a ban on the marketing of single-use plastics by 2040. 2040! In two generations… Can we imagine a more demotivating message in the face of a situation as urgent as plastic pollution?
I’ve been sailing the oceans since I was eight years old. Over the years, I’ve seen their surfaces covered with floating garbage, inexorably. I am fully aware of the extent of this gangrene, which kills entire ecosystems, threatens thousands of living species and irreparably damages once-preserved coastal areas. Our food itself is under threat, as this plastic ends up fragmented, becomes microplastic, irrecoverable, and enters our food chain. The WWF estimates that an adult ingests an average of five grams of plastic per week, the equivalent of a credit card! And by 2050, under the mechanical effect of population growth, forecasts show that there will be as much plastic as fish in the ocean.
This is nothing new. The alarm bell was sounded loudly more than twenty years ago, both by scientific experts and by observers of marine environments. Contrary to the fight against global warming, which suffers from the inertia imposed by the global warming deniers, no one is claiming any “plastic skepticism”. Nobody questions this reality. The sources of this pollution are clearly identified: 80% of plastic waste comes from the land via rivers and streams. And the remedies are unanimous: act at sea and on land, take preventive and corrective action head-on.
Faced with such unanimity, how can we justify that the French political leaders decided that it was urgent to wait to act? Of course, the democratic processes in China and France diverge and explain why changes are slower to take place in France than in the Middle Empire. But a little radicalism on this subject would have been welcome.
The French government, in my view, has made a triple error by pushing back the ban on single-use plastics to 2040.
The first is to ignore the strength of the symbol. How can we seriously speak of a “very strong and concrete signal” sent to our European partners and the rest of the world, advocating the introduction of a measure so gradually that it looks like a standstill? How can we encourage consumers to change their habits and industrialists to rethink their production methods, while at the same time suggesting that, in terms of ecological transition, twenty years away is a reasonable horizon? And that a whole generation can still continue to grow and produce plastic waste, of which only 40% is recycled or incinerated, the rest being buried in landfills or scattered in nature? To boast about the adoption of a measure whose application is immediately postponed is to lose credibility and expose oneself to be called hypocrite.
The second mistake is to underestimate the capacity of political decisions to influence industrial production processes. It is true that the plastic industry could not have implemented such a measure in three years. Admittedly, brutality does not work and can be counterproductive. But implementation by 2030 was quite realistic and feasible. The fields of eco-design and materials science are sufficientlye advanced that, in less than ten years’ time, industrialists would have been in marching order. Alternative solutions to plastics exist, substitutes have been tested, supply channels and manufacturing processes are known, and the environmental impacts of these replacements have been the subject of in-depth studies. The timetable could therefore have been tightened, as the system was not so unprepared for a “zero plastic” policy.
Major groups have already taken the plunge and are seizing a competitive advantage to win over public opinion and consumers who are increasingly aware of and eager to get plastic packaging out of circulation. We are the witness of this paradox: a political will slower to act in the general interest than private interests themselves!
The third and final mistake is to ignore the fact that the real drama of plastic pollution is not being played out in France, or even in Europe, but in the emerging economies. We know that the battle of plastic pollution at sea will be won on land. And it is in South-East Asia, Africa and South America that we must concentrate our efforts. 80% of ocean plastic pollution comes from these three areas.
Regions where there are no or few systems for waste collection, selective sorting and recycling, where the industry is not encouraged to turn to alternative products, and where public awareness is still in its infancy. These are areas where everything remains to be done and where the entire international community must urgently come forward to accompany the ecological transition. To give a comparison: France discharges 6,000 tons of plastic into the sea every year, while China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam alone discharge more than four million tons of plastic into the world’s seas every year, i.e. almost half of all discharges!
Let’s take off our blinkers, let’s look beyond our own backyard!
To be truly pioneering and exemplary in the eyes of the world, as its ambition shows, the anti-waste bill should have contained a section entirely devoted to French international development aid.
Europe is not to be outdone: the European “Green Deal”, presented a few weeks ago by the President of the Commission Ursula Van der Leyen, should have given priority to strengthening Europe’s international cooperation policy on these issues, instead of reducing it to the bare minimum.
Today, it is mainly NGOs and private initiatives that are involved in countries heavily impacted by plastic pollution, waiting for the international community to really take the measure of the danger and take ownership of the problem.
An incomprehensible wait-and-see attitude when we know that the ocean produces half of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs a third of the carbon emissions we emit. And that one billion people in the world eat only seafood.
Wishful thinking and the will to fight the battle at home will not be enough to stop the major ecological catastrophe that lies ahead. It could even be said that this is the wrong fight!
Only coordinated action, and the joint efforts of all people of good will, on all fronts, will make it possible to provide a lasting response to the major challenge of plastic pollution. The failure of COP25 materialized the lack of will of the major world powers to curb the global warming crisis. It marked the total divorce between political leaders paralyzed by the inertia of the system and subject to the law of major industrialists, and the urgency pointed out by scientists around the world and the demands of citizens in the streets increasingly worried about their future.
In June 2020, Lisbon will host the UN Conference for the Oceans. A new meeting, which will raise new hope, in which The SeaCleaners will participate to remind people of the urgency to act quickly and powerfully.
One figure to conclude: eighty tons.
This is the amount of plastic waste that was dumped into the oceans while you were reading this forum. Eighty tons is the equivalent of six garbage trucks. A fifteen-ton truck every minute. Two hundred and fifty kilos every second. What is this? When do we start doing something?