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Environment

Oct 30, 2018

Reaction: The European Single Use Plastic Ban

How big is the problem, and will this new legislation be as effective as we hope? We asked both those who know the oceans and those big corporations that produce the plastic.

WRITTEN BY

Sean Verity

The Outdoor Journal’s mission is to “To educate and inspire all people to experience, enjoy and protect wilderness”. As such, our team from around the world greeted this news with applause. We reached out to our friends who spend their days in or on the oceans, and asked them for their reaction.

However, it’s important to also take a step back to ensure that we capture a thorough and rounded perspective. We have no idea whether the alternatives will do more harm that good, and what other knock on effects any changes might have. We therefore reached out to some of the biggest plastic producers from around the world for their comments too.

Photo: Pixabay | Adege

THE LEGISLATION

On Wednesday the 24th October, members of the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted to enact a complete ban on single use plastics. Announced via a press release, the final count was 571 to 53, with 34 abstentions. However, before this new legislation is put into practice the European Parliament will discuss and negotiate specifics with the European Council of government ministers. We expect a final decision on the 16th December.

Single use plastics will include plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks or cotton buds, and make up over 70% of marine litter. In 2021, there are plans to widen the ban to include bags, packaging and fast-food containers made of expanded polystyrene. The consumption of several other items, for which no alternative exists, will have to be reduced by member states by least 25% by 2025.

Frédérique Ries

The Vice chair, Frédérique Ries from Belgium, said that “We have adopted the most ambitious legislation against single-use plastics. It is up to us now to stay the course in the upcoming negotiations with the Council, due to start as early as November. Today’s vote paves the way to a forthcoming and ambitious directive. It is essential in order to protect the marine environment and reduce the costs of environmental damage attributed to plastic pollution in Europe, estimated at 22 billion Euros by 2030.”

CONTEXTUALISING THE SIZE OF THE PROBLEM

Tom de Dorlodot

Tom de Dorlodot: Professional Red Bull sponsored paragliding and paramotoring pilot, Founder of Search Projects, who now lives on the seas. We recently published an update to Tom and Sofia’s story in a recent article.

“It took time… but it’s finally here. The European Parliament just voted to ban single-use plastic by 2021. Even if that might not be enough, it’s amazing news.

People buy, use and throw away plastic everyday but they sometimes forget that there is no such things as “away”. This plastic will stay for hundreds of years on this planet that we call home.

In all my expeditions, I was sad to realize that plastic has reached all corners of the World. It travels with the wind or floats in the rivers, breaks into tiny pieces and gets into our food chain. The other day, I cleaned a fish whose stomach was full of plastic debris, I saw a sea turtle chewing on a plastic bag, thinking it was a jelly fish in the Azores and as I sailed across the seas I was depressed by the quantity of plastic that I saw floating on the surface.

Let’s take measure, let’s be responsible and let’s not forget that besides the new rules and regulations, the biggest difference we can make is by changing our consumer habits.”

Jorge Hauser

Jorge Hauser: The CEO Pelagic Fleet, Underwater photographer, award-winning film producer and ecotourism activist. The Outdoor Journal recently wrote about Jorge and his work.

“When it comes to dangers and threats to the ocean, people usually go to overfishing, which is a big issue, along with coral bleaching and acidification… but we usually tend to undermine the silent, invisible killer: plastic. The thing about plastic is that once used, there’s a very good chance it’ll end in the ocean. Once there, it’ll take it hundreds of years to disintegrate, and even when that happens, the micro-particles pollute fish and seabirds worsening their genetics generation after generation. I have encountered Chinese bottles of water in places as remote and as pristine as Guadalupe Island, and it breaks my heart. If every one of us would stop the consumption of single-use plastics, that would go a long way! Can you imagine an invention more idiotic than the straw? Me neither. Banning these plastics in Europe is a big step in protecting the oceans, and a giant leap for common sense.”

Marcus Eriksen

Marcus Eriksen: The founder of The 5 Gyres Institute, an organisation that empowers action against the global health crisis of plastic pollution through science, education, and adventure.

“The banning of single-use plastics is the kind of solution the world is looking for. By now, most people have heard about ocean plastics, and likely have heard dozens of solutions to solve the problem, but most are distractions from the long-term solutions that focus on prevention.

Marcus Eriksen

Over the last decade, the plastic pollution issue has tracked the same way other issues have evolved, like the hole in the ozone layer or smog over big cities. Those issues began as over-sensationalized hype fueling public outrage and driving plenty of funding to do science, eventually landing on policy to prevent the problem. Plastic pollution is no different. What began as outrage over fictitious islands of trash in the ocean, followed by an avalanche of new science, is now largely focused on policy to end the harm from single-use throwaway plastics. With this announcement from the European Parliament to ban single-use plastics, it is uplifting to see that real solutions have arrived.”

REACTION FROM THE PLASTIC PRODUCERS

Prior to the announcement of this new legislation we had already begun to see change, or at least the intention to implement change. At the start of the year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced that “Eleven leading brands, retailers, and packaging companies will work towards 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier.” Together, these 11 companies represent more than 6 million tones of plastic packaging each year, whilst this is still just a drop in the ocean, it is a start.

One of these 11 companies included Mars Incorporated, who told The Outdoor Journal that “Our goal is to get our products to consumers using packaging with the lowest environmental impacts. We’ve made progress but still have work to do together with business, government and civil society. We’ve been a core partner to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative since 2016, and will continue collaborating as a signatory to the Global Commitment to drive further and faster efforts to tackle plastic pollution.

Photo: Pixabay | giogio55

Given that the new single use plastic legislation only applies to the European Union, it’s important that this ruling is only considered to be a contributing element to the wider change that is required. Efforts still needs to be made by companies such as Mars, globally. There is also a UK Plastics Pact in action which could have great significance, given the looming Brexit plans. Should Brexit go ahead, then the UK would not need to abide by this new European legislation. This pact has 4 goals:

  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (re-use) delivery models
  • 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted
  • 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging

Sainsbury’s, a major UK based chain of supermarkets and member of the UK Plastics Pack, told The Outdoor Journal that they have already taken significant steps, that include:

  • Reducing Sainsbury’s branded packaging by 35% since 2005
  • Nearly 40% of packaging already uses recycled content
  • 83% of Sainsbury’s packaging volume that’s sold is classed as widely recycled

Another of the 11 global corporations who are working towards 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 include PepsiCo. When the Outdoor Journal asked Pepsico for comment, Paul Skehan, Senior Director, EU Public Policy & Government Affairs, shared similar goals to their contemporaries with the same politically correct responses. However, Paul also shared valid concerns: “We have some concerns about specifics outlined in the directive, for example regarding tethering caps to bottles, which industry experts suggest will result in more plastic usage rather than less. We believe there needs to be more focus on improving waste collection and increasing recycling rates which are central issues to addressing the challenges of plastic waste. While we hope this may still be taken into consideration, we will continue to work with partners such as the New Plastics Economy to further these critical areas. We know that to truly achieve a sustainable change in reducing plastic waste requires a collaborative effort with many different groups in society.”

Paul Skehan raises a key point, whilst we all have the right goals in mind and there is clearly a desire to save our oceans, it’s important that the alternative solutions are viable, and do not contribute to the problem in other ways. For example, will a bigger sacrifice be required to produce an alternative material?

Elsewhere, there was further rhetoric, such as British Airways, who told The Outdoor Journal that “We support any initiative that will potentially reduce the use of Single Use Plastics and we are working with our industry association, IATA, to liaise with the EU to understand how we can practically achieve this in our sector”.

Whilst the European ban on single use plastics represents a great step forward, greater research and time needs to be invested into making sure that alternative measures are viable and will effectively contribute to reaching long term goals. The good news is that there now appears to be a global conversation, and perhaps even consensus to ensure change, in one the places that it’s needed most.

The Outdoor Journal also reached out to Starbucks, Proctor and Gamble, Costa Coffee, Aldi, SAS, McDonalds, Burger King, Lufthansa, Virgin Airways, Coca-Cola, Nestle and Unliever, but they all refused the opportunity to comment.

Cover Photo: Jedimentat44

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Environment

Dec 21, 2018

Youth v. USA: Carbon Capitalism on Trial

As a nation's leaders shrink from imminent global catastrophe, its youth rise to the challenge. In the US, a lawsuit against the federal government could galvanize climate change policy.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Aji Piper was just 15 years old when he and 20 other adolescents sued the federal government. Their contention: due to decades of misconduct, the country’s highest bureaucracy is responsible for deleterious climate change. Three years later, their lawsuit, Juliana vs. USA, awaits a trial date. As citizens poised to inherit a volatile climate and its incumbent challenges, the youth plaintiffs have turned to the courts as the last bulwark against an administration devoted to business-as-usual. As children and young adults, Piper and the other prosecutors have the activist mentality and tech-savvy to promote their case online and in the streets. “We are agency in action; we have to win in the court of law and the court of public opinion,” Piper says.

Youth rally for climate justice

They’ve already got climate science on their side. Consensus from this month’s UN “Conference of the Parties” (COP) climate summit is that urgent remedial action is required of world leaders to address anthropogenic climate change. At the conference, heavyweight investors warned of $23 trillion annual economic losses should global leaders fail to slash carbon emissions and phase out coal burning. October’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report called for a 45% reduction in global carbon dioxide emission to avoid irrevocable climate-related dangers including sea level rise, mass crop loss, and extreme weather events. Forecasts predict a global temperature increase of 3°C since pre-industrial numbers by the end of the century—well above the 1.5°C target most experts champion. Climate-related hazards unfold on a visceral level as anomalous wildfire events, coastal inundations, and exacerbated respiratory ailments such as asthma. The sirens of the climate change newsroom have reached fever pitch, but they’ve fallen on deaf ears at the federal level.

Oil well at sunrise. Image via Pixabay.

Federal subsidy of the fossil fuel industry has resulted in human suffering due to climate change, and they are liable for the damage.

The prosecutors of Juliana vs. USA first brought their qualms to the judicial realm under the Obama administration in 2015. Their bid for trial puttered through a series of bureaucratic postponements that bled into the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s administration poses an additional hurdle for the lawsuit. The president, an outspoken climate change denier, has called global warming “a total, and very expensive hoax”, and has pursued pro-fossil-fuel policy since taking office. Just last week, his administration released plans to retract protection of the greater sage grouse on some nine million acres of public lands in the West to pursue oil and gas drilling. According to policy experts, the action would open up more land to drilling than any previous move the administration has made.

Youth rally for climate justice

Ironically, the defendants won’t be denying the climate science, which Juliana lawyer Philip Gregory knows is airtight. Instead, they will obfuscate the link between climate change and bodily harms and contest federal responsibility for rising carbon emissions. But Gregory says that the government has known since the 1950s that burning fossil fuels could affect the climate. “They put a foot on the accelerator and ramped up fossil fuel extraction through federal leasing and opening up the Gulf and the Arctic for drilling, despite knowledge that carbon dioxide emissions could have devastating negative health effects,” he informs. According to Gregory, the global crises is the result of more than political paralysis; affirmative government action fueled the catastrophe.

Youth rally for climate justice

The case raises some imposing questions. How will federal policies address the uncertain boundaries of climate change? What responsibility does a government bear to its citizens with respect to the climate? Gregory and the prosecutors have an answer. “The government does not have a duty to directly protect anyone; however, if it creates a danger or is a substantial factor in creating the danger, then it is obligated to protect citizens from harm,” Gregory explains. He analogizes fossil fuel to foster care. “A classic example would be the state-run foster care system. If they have reason to suspect that a licensed foster-care provider is not helping children but continue to license that provider, they would be liable for the suffering of children under the care of the negligent provider.” Essentially, federal subsidy of the fossil fuel industry has resulted in human suffering due to climate change, and they are liable for the damage.

Piper claims that Washington’s culpability is incontrovertible because “livable climate is essential to a free and ordered society.” He wants to test the clout of the public trust doctrine, which holds that the government is responsible for good stewardship of critical natural resources. The plaintiffs reason that healthy climate, a natural resource comparable to clean air or safe drinking water, is entitled to legal protection. But the potency of the public trust doctrine is already under siege; on Tuesday the EPA released proposed changes to the Clean Water Act that would truncate federal protection of vast tracts of seasonal wetlands and waterways. The plan is the latest effort by the Trump administration to rescind “regulatory overreaching” Obama-era environmental policy they claim stifles development. As the proposal demonstrates, even an established protection like the Clean Water Act is subject to the agenda of the sitting government. Federal curbing by the GOP can limit the efficacy of a “public trust” designation.

Youth rally for climate justice

It’s unclear whether victory in court will impact global carbon emissions in the critical time-frame prescribed by the IPCC report.

Should Juliana triumph in court, the US government would be bound by law to develop a climate recovery plan. According to Piper, the plan’s content is outside the jurisdiction of the courts but will necessitate unprecedented commitment to reforestation and other carbon sequestration efforts, renewable energy subsidies, and an aggressive dismantling of fossil-fuel infrastructure. That’s a tall order of a government whose President said in October: “I don’t know that it’s [climate change] manmade…I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t want to be put at a disadvantage.” An adequate climate plan would entail a complete overhaul of US carbon capitalism, a radical reconfiguration that the present administration will resist with every political roadblock at their disposal. Stall tactics might include an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, or even to the Supreme Court and its conservative-leaning bench. Due to the ambiguity of a “climate recovery plan” and the legislatorial challenges of a polarized government, it’s unclear whether victory in court will impact global carbon emissions in the critical time-frame prescribed by the IPCC report. But every month counts on a destabilizing planet, and the lawsuit’s prompt success could mean the difference between 1.5°C of warming and 3°C. “Even if we do pass a ‘tipping point’, I won’t stop being an activist,” Piper concluded. “Even helping one community or one family is making a positive impact, and that’s enough for me.”

Youth rally for climate justice. Photos provided by Marlow Baines.
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