The North, The South and The Plastic

In the recent decades, as the climate question has constantly become more and more relevant, its scope has widened incrementally. What was initially a mere matter of environment, now is an expanded field of social, political and ethical contestations. The haggle over environmental degradation formally started back in 1970s but at large, it was after the consolidation of globalist aspirations for sustainable future in the form of United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s (WCED) Brundtland Report in 1987 that the discourse of sustainability was problematized, and inconsistencies and discrepancies in policy and practice began to surface. The problems referred to here, majorly include an uneven distribution of duties and obligations toward environment, a monolithic and overhauling imagining of solutions and a discriminatory treatment of the so called developing world by international environmental governance infrastructure. These issues have in a way implied an impression that the eco-regulations are also premised upon the same arrangements which were at the core of eco-degradation i.e. hegemonic orientations of international politics.

The haggle over environmental degradation formally started back in 1970s but at large, it was after the consolidation of globalist aspirations for sustainable future in the form of United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s (WCED) Brundtland Report in 1987 that the discourse of sustainability was problematized, and inconsistencies and discrepancies in policy and practice began to surface.

Plastic waste crisis is one of the most pressing issues that constitute climate dilemma. Coming into mass usage in 1950s, plastic since has progressively eroded the environment and is among the biggest pollutants on Earth. Plastic is a part of fossil fuel industry therefore, it creates high carbon emissions before it even comes into being. Obliteration of oceanic Earth might be the gravest threat that plastic poses today. A massive pile of plastic has been accumulating in the Pacific Ocean to constitute The Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is estimated to be over 1.6 million square kilometers big in size. It is believed that by 2050 there will be more plastic in oceans than fish. Despite all, the use of plastic grows every day. Around 1.5 million tons of annual plastic produced in 1950 has climbed up to over 320 million tons last year. The world has produced 6.3 billion tons of plastic so far and is expected to take it up to 12 billion tons in 30 years.

The stats are terrifying but what is more unsettling than stats, is the measures that the world is taking to combat this challenge. All the goodness of all the treaties, conventions and declarations does not reflect in the execution of solutions. Since it is impossible to think of eliminating plastic from modern life, most of the big corporates handle the pressure of eco-regulations by pledging to go for recyclable, bio-degradable and non-virgin plastic products with elaborate long-term plans. The question here is that how much plastic can in actual be recycled given the fact that out of annual global plastic production, only 4 million tons is bio-plastic which constitutes an almost negligible amount. The United Nations confirms that only 9 percent of the world’s plastic production since 1950 could be recycled. In 2015, the annually recycled plastic was less than 20% of the annual plastic production.

A massive pile of plastic has been accumulating in the Pacific Ocean to constitute The Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is estimated to be over 1.6 million square kilometers big in size.

A total bio-plastic regime seems to be an allusion to mythical designs drawn out to serve contemporary hegemonic interests. The recycling industry has complexities of its own. It has created a global market for plastic waste. Hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic waste is shipped to third world coasts from global north for recycling. Only the United States of America last year, dispatched 68000 containers of plastic waste to third world out of which, over 85000 tons was exported to Vietnam only. This where on one hand, results in grave exploitation of third world’s labor-intensive plastic recycling industries and peoples, on the other, further tarnishes the climate of the tropical world. These poor countries face massive problems dealing with their own plastic waste, let alone the dumping of first world pollution on their lands. This process is enacting whole new garbage cities in the developing world like Min Khai in Vietnam, which is on its way to become the center of cottage waste management industry in the world. This sort of attempt at eco-sustainability further suspends environmental rights of the citizens of the third world. While, the US consumer thinks that all this recycling business is being carried out in the best interest of humanity, many of the respiratory disorders and skin diseases caused by plastic waste are becoming pandemic in countries leading in plastic waste management industries. Hence, the dream of an absolute eco-friendly plastic consumerism appears to be another northern utopia feeding on the dystopian realities of the global south.

There can be no immediate solution to this plastic problem. The best chance for the developing world is that their leaders distinctively raise the issues they are facing due to eco-degradation and eco-regulation on international forums. This can contribute in drawing out of more inclusive and informed policies of eco-sustainability. In May this year, 187 countries signed a treaty directed at providing nations with the power to halt the incoming of contaminated plastic waste from developed countries. The US was among the countries that did not sign this treaty. This points to an even greater need for imagining plastic crisis considering power orientations of the world.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic waste is shipped to third world coasts from global north for recycling. Only the United States of America last year, dispatched 68000 containers of plastic waste to third world out of which, over 85000 tons was exported to Vietnam only.

Prime Minister Imran Khan for instance, at the UN General Assembly this year called for the developed world to assume far greater responsibility then they think they should by stating that the third world economies just do not afford green policies as much as the developed countries do. This however, was dubbed as understanding the world in the binary of us and them in Indian reply to the Premier’s address. Sadly, a keen critical eyeful into the discourse of sustainable development provides a contrasting picture. The binary, the Prime Minister was accused of adhering to, is validated by discriminatory climate politics in the world. The developing world, in addition to having lost much of its resources to its colonial history, is facing huge unemployment levels, abysmal economic growth rates and extreme political instabilities. It is not very inclusive to expect it to contribute toward a sustainable future as much as, the developed world can do.  If it is a global issue, then there should be a justifiable distribution of responsibility. Climate justice should mean to preserve the climate without jeopardizing the livelihoods in poorer portions of the world. Many questions can however be raised on the viability of such a strategy as there are structural restraints on the structure itself as well and there can be no real solution in only voicing the deeper problem with the world i.e. unequal relations between the North and the South. The contention here is only that there are possibilities that such kind of strategies might lead us to more viable avenues.

Furthermore, public awareness and consumer training are the most formidable ways to cut the demand for plastic short and make corporations take their sustainability goals more seriously. Eco-regulation in low income economies entails relaxations and special treatments on international financial fronts. They cannot afford to promote eco-policies and be badmouthing plastic corporate and resultantly render their lands inhospitable for foreign capital as well as domestic economic activity. It is cardinal to even getting close to solving the climate question, to be capable of imagining an in-discriminatory and just climate future in which people with lesser privileges are given lesser burdens to carry. For instance, a policy of early harvests for the sake of sustainability can to a serious extent, enhance the applicability of UN Sustainable Development Goals in the global south. Last but still the least, how farfetched is it to suggest a campaign to get ‘Plastic Kills’ on beverages contained in plastic packaging, just like they do with tobacco.

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