Pollution blame game: Break Free From Plastic brands ocean plastic graphic “misleading”
15 Mar 2023 --- Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) has criticized a “misleading graphic” published by Visual Capitalist for perpetuating narratives that countries in Asia are the main contributors to oceanic plastic pollution, distracting from the “real” causes of plastic pollution.
The graphic, created by Louis Lugas, is based on research from Lourens Meijer regarding which countries’ rivers are leaking the most plastic into the ocean.
“I think we waste more time and energy blaming others than looking at ourselves. Let’s not deny that we, or our country that we live in (in my case Indonesia), still have bad waste and plastic waste management.” Lugas tells PackagingInsights.
However, BFFP asserts that Lugas’ image perpetuates the false narrative that Asian countries are the world’s top plastic polluters while ignoring the role of the global North in plastic overproduction and waste dumping.
“The graphic fails to capture the complexities of plastic pollution in Asia, which involves the export of plastic waste to the Global South, where cheap labor is accessed, mainly from waste pickers, in the guise of recycling,” Satyarupa Shekhar, Asia Pacific coordinator at BFFP, tells PackagingInsights.
“Most cities and communities in these areas have inadequate infrastructure for safely handling post-consumer plastic and other non-recyclable packaging, and yet fast-moving consumer goods, and by extension, waste trade exporters, continue to flood Asian markets with problematic plastic discards,” adds Miko Alino, BFFP’s projector coordinator for corporate accountability.
Solutions over blame
The top ten named contributors in the graphic are from Asian countries except for one “without context and acknowledgment of what creates this scenario,” says BFFP.
“Developed nations have been shifting their responsibility for waste management to under-resourced nations,” says Mageswari Sangaralingam from the Consumers’ Association of Penang, Malaysia.
“Besides dealing with our waste, we now have to manage other people’s waste which potentially leads to leakage into the environment. Plastic pollution does not respect borders. We must end waste colonialism and stop injustice.”
Lugas explains that often graphics cannot gather the full picture of an issue, with many nuances that cannot be properly depicted. He explains that he showed which countries leak plastics into the oceans, but not directly from where those plastics come and who is to blame for the resulting pollution. .
“Let's not forget that those companies are multinational, for example, Coca-Cola has a bottling company in Indonesia. If the Indonesian people buy the Coca-Cola drink that has been made in an Indonesian factory?”
He says the complexities of whose fault it is that these plastics exist goes beyond the companies themselves. There are multifaceted areas within packaging, marketing and consumption that all share the responsibility.
“I witness with my own eyes how my own countrymen throw their trash into the river. I see how my rivers are dirty and not well maintained.”
Lugas cites that there are 81 hectares of landfills near Jakarta, Indonesia that stand as high as a 16-story tower, unmanaged. “From that fact alone, I believe that Indonesian have a lot of waste management problems-hence plastics waste, with or without the ‘West.’”
Jeff Desjardins, the editor-in-chief of Visual Capitalist, the publisher of the graphic, tells us that the platform’s focus is on visualizing verified data sources.
“We aim not to take a stance on the data being presented. We trust our readers to come to their own conclusions and do further research. In this instance, we chose to publish Louis Lugas Wicaksono’s visual as it had a clearly cited and trustworthy source.”
“We recognize that no single image can convey the nuance of any complex argument and welcome learning about additional data sources such as highlighted in the #BreakFreeFromPlastic blog post.”
Plastic polluting across its lifecycle
The organization suggests a holistic approach to tackling plastic pollution across the whole plastics value chain, focusing on prevention rather than cure and providing effective solutions.
“Framing plastic pollution as a marine litter problem distracts and derails real solutions, namely, capping production of plastics and petrochemicals, and preventing plastic waste from leaving the countries where it is generated,” asserts Shekhar.
“This focus draws attention to the downstream stages of the plastic pollution crisis, and ignores the fact that production and delivery systems have been deliberately designed in ways that result in plastics being disposable and dumped in waterways, dumpsites and oceans,” she continues.
BFFP says it’s imperative to recognize that plastic pollutes across its lifecycle – from extracting fossil fuels to manufacturing single-use plastics, polluting disposal technologies and global North countries dumping waste in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“Exporting plastic wastes to countries in Asia is just another form of colonialism, harming the most vulnerable communities. Plastics harm not only the environment but also human health,” says Aileen Lucero, national coordinator of Ecowaste Coalition, Philippines.
BFFP recently released its annual brand audit that names the companies that contribute the most to plastic pollution. The statement notes that corporations should be responsible for the packaging waste they create and focusing on Asian countries as main contributors is a distraction.
“In the latest progress report, some of the biggest producers of plastic packaging have increased their use of virgin plastic, and would likely miss their 2025 target. Worse, they are heavily invested in false solutions and greenwashing, such as the unproven technologies,” continues Shekhar.
“Letting corporations continue its business as usual practices will simply propagate false solutions to the plastic waste crisis and will not bring us any closer to addressing the climate crisis and social injustices,” adds Lucero.
However, Lugas questions comparing companies to countries and the validity of blaming corporations for the plastic pollution in oceans. “They add the infographic that says the ‘Top five Polluters Company.’ I believe it’s true, but I think it does not make any sense to directly compare it with ‘Top Polluters Country.’”
“Who is to blame? The Coca-Cola company that makes and sells the product? The US government that lets the company operate? The import-export company that is the middleman? The receiving countries’ governments that let the Coca-Cola product in? The marketing company who made the advertising that made people want to buy more Coca-Cola or the consumers who just want a sweet soda drink?,” proposes Lugas.
BFFP has tried to clear the misinformation regarding Asian countries' ocean waste contributions. Previously, they initiated an apology and retraction from Ocean Conservancy after their report blamed Asian countries for the world’s plastic pollution crisis.
“[The graphic] fails to acknowledge the disproportionately large role that developed countries, such as the USA, UK, Japan, Australia and Europe, have played and continue to play in generating and exporting waste to these very countries,” Alino tells us.
BFFP urges all governments and corporations to end waste colonialism and proposes supporting the Global Plastic Treaty as a solution in its statement.
“If we want to see an end to plastic pollution, governments must act to address plastic pollution at every stage and cap plastic production,” Lucero concludes.
By Sabine Waldeck
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