Why Did The U.S. Weaken International Plastic Regulations?

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Last week, at the United Nations Environment Assembly of the United Nations (U.N.) Environment Programme, U.N. member countries agreed to counter the negative impacts that plastic products and their disposal have on the global environment. As part of this agreement, the U.N. Environment Assembly laid out a bold goal: to drastically cut global levels of single-plastic use by 2030.

But some say this benchmark isn’t enough. And many of these same voices are blaming the United States for weakening a previously stated, much stronger goal.

Across five days of talks in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, many U.N. member nations stood behind India’s vision for all member governments to fully eliminate the production and use of all single-use plastics by 2025. However, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and other countries worked together during the talks to soften the language of India’s ideas: following these countries’ efforts, instead of eliminating single-use plastics by 2025, the goal is now to diminish — not abolish — single-plastic use, and the timeline for doing so is five years longer.

Many environmental experts have criticized these countries’ moves to tone down India’s ambitious vision. David Azoulay, of the Center for International Environmental Law, called out the United States for prioritizing the desires of the fracking and petrochemical industries over the needs of the planet and its inhabitants. A group of environmental organizations, including IPEN, No Waste Louisiana, Coare, Plastic Change, and Break Free From Plastic issued a joint statement further denouncing the moves made by the United States and its collaborating countries. Even during the assembly, voices of opposition emerged from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Senegal, three countries among those most impacted by plastic pollution.

According to the United States’ assembly delegation, more pressing concerns about plastic pollution have gone entirely unaddressed. Brian Doherty, one of the U.S. delegates to the U.N. Environmental Assembly, suggested that a push to ban single-use plastics might be misguided. Instead, he argued, bolstering waste management systems in Asia might be more helpful — after all, he stated, the majority of plastic that finds its way into the world’s waters originates from six Asian countries.

Currently, the United States is planning to pour billions of dollars into plastic and petroleum products through 2030. Shell Chemical and ExxonMobil Chemical, not to mention many other large American corporations, are directly involved in building the facilities intended to broaden the scale of plastic production. Industry experts expect that these facilities will lead to a 40 percent increase in plastic production through 2030 — and globally, more than 300 million tons of plastic are already produced every year.

Although many have voiced disdain for the United States’ actions at the U.N. Environmental Assembly, there are plenty of results to celebrate. Following the assembly, the International Maritime Organization will implement an action plan to curb the quantity of plastics that make their way into the ocean. It will also issue guidelines intended to better organize global data regarding plastic pollution. Progress has been made, but in the eyes of many, more could have been done had the United States not interfered.

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