Pope Francis is deeply concerned about the oceans filling with plastic—a problem he says only a higher power can fix. And by higher power I mean global governance.
On Saturday, in his annual message for the Church’s environmentally themed Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, the leader of the Holy See called on humanity to be better stewards of the water. “Sadly, all too many efforts fail due to the lack of effective regulation and means of control, particularly with regard to the protection of marine areas beyond national confines,” he lamented. The faithful, he said, should pray for those “who contribute to the development and application of international regulations on the seas.”
With 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the world’s oceans every year, the Holy Father is not wrong to draw attention to marine plastic pollution. But neither his diagnosis of the problem nor his proposed solution seem divinely inspired.
While the ocean is a global commons, the plastic that enters it each year comes mostly from land-based sources that hardly lack government oversight and regulation. According to a 2017 study in Environmental Science & Technology, as much as a quarter of a year’s marine plastic pollution—nearly 2.75 million metric tons—makes its way into the oceans from just 10 rivers. As much as 1.5 million tons come from China’s Yangtze River alone.
A 2015 study found similarly that of the 8 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year, the vast majority comes from poorer, populous, and coastal East Asian nations where most single-use plastic items wind up as litter, which then makes its way into the seas. The best solution, thus, is to improve these countries’ waste management systems, so that more plastic goes instead to the landfill, the incinerator, or the recycling center. Contrary to the papal message, this is something that national governments have every power and ability to address.
It’s true that a lot of the plastic that gets into the ocean comes from discarded nets, traps, and other fishing gear discarded in international waters. Some 46 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be made up of the stuff. But here too, national governments are hardly powerless. They can and do regulate all aspects of their fishing industries, down to what kind of equipment can be used and how it is to be disposed of. Any global regulations would still need to be implemented by those same national governments that have already failed—through lack of political will, resources, or general competence—to handle their own plastic waste problems.
The best hope in this area isn’t coming for regulators, national or global, but from local, private actors. For example, the Philippine municipality of Quezon City, just outside the capitol Manilla, has managed to achieve a recycling rate of about 40 percent after privatizing its landfill operations and largely handing over waste collection to some 500 private recycling centers.
Other organizations, like the Vancouver-based Plastic Bank, pay people an above-market rate for plastic items, which are then recycled and resold to Western retailers who market them as socially responsible plastics. Plastic Bank, which has operations in Brazil, Haiti, and the Philippines, has collected some 8 million pounds of plastic since 2015.
These efforts are a work in progress, but they seem promising. Pope Francis should put a little more faith in them, and a little less in yet another top-down, global, government-led crusade.