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Why We Must Ban Plastic Bags and Support a Circular Economy

Insights + Opinion

"There's your product. It's all plastic bags," I said to Phil Rozenski, director of sustainability and marketing for Novalex, a plastic bag manufacturer. We were on stage debating the efficacy of plastic bags at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition annual conference in Charlotte, North Carolina in early October.

The object I was referring to was a 45-pound mass of tangled plastic bags found in the stomach of a dead camel in the desert of Dubai. The intention was to point out that in a circular economy products and packaging that escape the best recovery systems on the planet and cost taxpayers unfairly to clean up the mess, must be replaced with a design that is a benefit rather than a cost once you include the inconvenient externalities.

The object I was referring to was a 45-pound mass of tangled plastic bags found in the stomach of a dead camel in the desert of Dubai. Photo credit: Marcus Eriksen / 5 Gyres Institute

For half an hour we went back and forth about statistics that we each use to defend our positions, pointing to the other's faulty arguments, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I said, "You know, we could go back and forth all day with our convenient statistics, knowing we're just gonna dig in our heels on where we stand. Can we get beyond it all?"

My point was very simple. Plastic bags by design are really good at escaping our recovery systems and knowing now how dangerous plastics are to the environment, the logical next step is a design overhaul. Out with the old and in with the new. Rozenski nodded his head, then responded, "Would you be willing to support our How2Recycle program?" Two weeks later I was on a call with How2Recycle representatives.

How2Recycle was born out of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and their work to create a circular economy around plastic products and packaging in order to keep materials out of the dump or incinerator and instead keep them moving in a circular system from production and manufacturing to consumption and recovery.

Specifically, How2Recycle is a more informed labeling system that alerts the consumer to the recycleability of a product in the region where the customer lives. It directs people where to go to recycle, whether it's curbside collection or returning your materials to the store where it came from. It will be a vast improvement to clear the confusion around the chasing arrow triangle with number in the middle that makes everyone think that everything is recycled. That number is only a resin code and doesn't direct consumers where to go.

As we spoke with How2Recycle, we got into a discussion about irrecoverable products. The 5 Gyres Institute, working with a wide coalition of partners across the country, promotes a legislative ban on plastic microbeads in consumer products. In 2015, nine states have passed bans. The microbead ban eliminates the use of salt grain-sized particles of plastic in cosmetics and toothpaste that are designed to wash down the drain after use. It's a huge design flaw, completely irrecoverable from anywhere, therefore the only solution is to level the playing field through legislation and make room for companies to innovate a chemically benign alternative. In our throwaway society there are hundreds of applications of plastic that are irrecoverable, from gum wrappers to sachet packets, these are design failures that evade recovery and are not recycled in any practical, meaningful terms.

When I asked the How2Recycle representatives, "Where do you stand on products like this and others that you can't stick a recycle label on and if you did they would likely never get recycled anyway because of their elusive design? Like candy wrappers, plastic stir sticks, catchup packets, the list goes on and on." The answer was quite simple. They said, "We are material neutral." That means the How2Recycle program and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition as a whole, do not weigh in on the material of choice a company uses. Instead, they aim to improve recyclability.

The contradiction here is that if you are not willing to stand against poorly conceived applications of plastic, then you're not addressing irrecoverable design, which is one of the tenants of a circular economy. You must make design choices that fit a system of efficient recovery or go for environmentally benign materials. You can't be for a circular economy and be materials neutral at the same time.

But what this contradiction unveils is a deeper set of philosophical assumptions that trump the recycling conversation. It is the ethos of doing business where any scent of regulation, as in microbead or plastic bag bans, is seen as heresy to the free market system. It's an unwavering belief that the market regulates itself and any constraints undermine innovation. The consensus among nonprofits working on waste issues is that for the sake of public good, harmful materials need to be removed from society if evidence shows they cause harm. This is the divide between industry and conservation that fuels the contradiction.

So then what is the solution? We look for common values. We all believe in being responsible citizens. And we all believe that doing things that hurt other people and causes suffering is wrong. When we accept the latest science about plastic ocean pollution and the danger it poses to the environment and marine food webs, it is clear that plastic in the environment becomes dangerous as it shreds into microplastics, absorbs toxins and has ecosystem-wide impacts. Plastic in the environment is doing harm and responsibility must be shared across sectors, including the courage to eliminate poorly designed products and packaging. The industries that make plastic products and packaging have enjoyed the economic benefit of deferring the cost and responsibilities for these externalities to municipalities and taxpayers.

We ask the members of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition to reject being "materials neutral" and take a stronger position of poor design choices. Science has proven the increased risks plastic pose to to the world. That justifies greater responsibility.

Watch my presentation here:

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about donations to the Amazon Fund. LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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