n 2018, five of the G7 member countries signed the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter. Countries signing to the agreement pledged to work towards building better recycling infrastructure and innovating technology to tackle environmental challenges. The charter additionally asked countries to work towards making all plastics recyclable by 2030, to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics, and to encourage the use of recycled plastics.
Signatures from the U.S. and Japan were notably absent from the charter, drawing worldwide scrutiny. Japan’s plastic consumption is currently the second highest in the world. In plastic bags alone, Japanese consumption is extremely high—the island nation uses 40 billion a year. And tucked into each of these 40 billion plastic bags are products likely to be surrounded in layers of plastic. Both Japanese hygiene standards and pride in customer service dictate that consumer goods are obsessively wrapped in plastics. At some grocery stores, even potatoes and carrots are individually wrapped in the polluting petrochemical product. And despite the country’s claim that 86% of their plastics are being recycled, 58% of Japan’s plastic waste is incinerated to produce heat and electricity, while 14% is exported to poorer Asian countries, its ultimate destination undocumented. The Washington Post reports that only 14% of the country’s plastic waste truly ends up being recycled in Japan.
The fallacies in Japan’s recycling claims, however, do not mean that the country isn’t trying to reduce its plastics problem. By 2030, the country has set a goal to reduce its production of single-use plastics by 25% . Japan also wants to begin charging customers for plastic bags, a charge that would go into effect in 2020. Several companies in the country are already leading the way. The Japanese grocery chain Aeon notes that 1,700 of their grocery stores already charge extra for plastic bags, and their goal is to expand this initiative to 2,500 stores by February 2020. Further, Japanese 7-Eleven convenience stores intend to eliminate their plastic bag usage in the country by 2030.
Whereas Japan has made efforts to reduce its plastics problem, however, the United States, the only other G7 country that failed to sign the 2018 Ocean Plastics Charter, has lacked the same initiative. As Quartz reports, the United States hasn’t set any national goals for plastics. Making matters worse, the actions the United States has taken in the area have likely exacerbated the country’s plastics problem. In 2017, the Trump administration reversed a ban that prohibited the sale of plastic bottles in American national parks. That same year, the United States left the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
The American issue with plastics, however, runs deeper than a lack of action. Recent American growth in the production of oil and natural gas has led to an increase in the production of natural gas liquids (NGLs) such as ethane. Ethane is the main component in plastic production, which has become a large American industry. On the global scale, the U.S. accounts for 1/3 of NGL production. And the industry is growing. Ethane investment has amounted to $202 billion since 2010, and domestic demand is growing as companies open more ethane-cracking facilities. Exxon Mobil hosts one of the world’s largest polyethylene facilities in Mont Belvieu, Texas, and Shell is currently building a massive plant in Appalachia as the ethane industry grows.
Exxon Mobil hosts one of the world’s largest polyethylene facilities in Mont Belvieu, Texas, and Shell is currently building a massive plant in Appalachia as the ethane industry grows.
As American plastics production ramps up, the U.S. must make tangible plans to control its growing stocks of plastic waste. Such legislative schemes, however, seem unlikely if the Trump administration’s previous environmental actions can be any indicator of future initiatives. And in Japan, environmental experts argue that the country needs to make plans to reduce plastic usage if Japan wants to get a firm handle on its plastics problem. The nation’s efforts to reduce single-use plastic production and eliminate plastic bag use are only modest attempts to manage the country’s plastic problems.
Clearly, Japan and the United States are the G7 countries with the biggest plastics problems, though their plight is shared by countries across the world. Reducing plastic pollution is a global concern, so much so that President Emmanuel Macron has made environmental concerns a key agenda item when France hosts the G7 summit in Biarritz in August.
However, in addition to prioritizing environmental issues, France plans to give several African countries a seat at the table during August’s G7 summit to discuss economic inequality, health, and education. However, with the U.S. and Japan falling behind their fellow G7 countries in terms of tackling plastic pollution, perhaps the agenda should devote time to discussing environmental issues with the summit’s African partners. Across Africa, nations have banded together under a campaign known as Beat Plastic Pollution. Africa currently hosts 25 countries with nationwide plastic bag bans, making it the continent with the most countries banning plastic bags. Perhaps policy recommendations from the African countries mobilizing behind Beat Plastic Pollution could stimulate additional action from the G7 partners this summer.