KARIUZAWA, Japan - Environment ministers from the Group of 20 on Sunday recognized an urgent need to tackle the marine plastic litter that is choking the world’s oceans but failed Sunday to agree on concrete measures or targets to phase out single-use plastics.
More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, equivalent to a garbage truck’s worth every minute, and by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans by weight than there are fish, scientists predict.
But agreeing on a common approach has proved problematic, with the U.S. blocking demands to set a global target to significantly reduce or phase out single-use plastics.
“Marine litter, and especially marine plastic litter and microplastics, is a matter requiring urgent attention given its adverse impacts on marine ecosystems, livelihoods and industries including fisheries, tourism and shipping, and potentially on human health,” environment ministers from the G-20 said on Sunday.
The ministers said they were “determined to drive measures to resolve this issue,” while also noting that “plastics play an important role in our economies and daily lives.”
But they failed to agree on any shared commitments, talking only of “encouraging voluntary actions” by G-20 members “in accordance with national policies.”
Marine plastic pollution has become an increasingly hot diplomatic topic, and there have been calls for collective action at G-20, Group of Seven and U.N. forums. The European Union aims to phase out single-use plastics by 2030 and make all packaging reusable or recyclable.
Countries at a U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March pledged to significantly reduce the manufacture and use of single-use plastics by 2030 — apart from the U.S., which spent two weeks in Nairobi watering down the proposals before finally signaling its rejection of the declaration on the final day.
Instead, the Trump administration blames Asian countries where huge amounts of plastic are being washed into the sea. “Sixty percent of the marine plastic waste comes from six Asian countries, and 80 percent of the waste comes from four rivers internationally,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters in Kariuzawa. “We know where those problems are, and we can do a lot to address that.”
One widely quoted study found that China was the largest direct source of marine plastics litter, with Indonesia also a significant contributor. Wheeler said it would be wrong to focus exclusively on single-use plastic at the expense of dealing with waste management issues.
But environmentalists say the Trump administration’s argument ignores the fact that the U.S. has long been the world’s biggest exporter of plastic waste to poorer countries, which has brought dire environmental consequences.
It also glosses over the role of U.S. corporations in selling plastics and products packed in non-recyclable plastic to developing countries. “The United States is very, very beholden to industry interests,” said Christopher Chin, executive director of the Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research and Education.
The center, along with Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, is calling for a legally binding treaty to curb marine plastic pollution. The groups argue that an essential element of such a treaty has to be a shared global commitment to significantly reduce or phase out single-use plastic.
“What has been happening for some years is basically global plastic waste dumping from the global north to the global south, under the guise of legitimate recycling,” said Sirine Rached of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.