In a celebrity-crusted ceremony in Boston on last week, start-up Notpla received one of the coveted $1.2 million awards from Prince William’s Earthshot prize for developing a biodegradable plastic alternative out of seaweed. “We’re hoping to make single-use plastic a thing of the past,” one of the founders said in a video introduced by David Beckham. Notpla’s small team cheered wildly from London as the award was announced, and the audience was treated to a video about Notpla’s remarkable discovery. “You guys have gone from kitchen experiments to a potentially world-changing solution,” BBC Radio host Clara Amfo said.
Meanwhile in Punta del Este, Uruguay, that same evening, the first meeting of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, or INC, to develop a binding agreement to reduce plastic pollution ended in failure. More than 40 countries of a so-called High Ambition Coalition—including European Union member states, Uruguay, Burkina Faso, the Republic of Korea, and others—had pressed for instituting mandatory global restrictions on plastics production. The United States, along with a few other top plastic- and petrochemical-producing countries, opposed this, suggesting instead that efforts be purely voluntary and country by country.
The parallels between plastics and fossil fuels, and between the INC failures in Uruguay and those of the U.N. climate talks at COP27 in Egypt, are grotesquely clear at this point. Plastics, as TNR staff writer Kate Aronoff reminded readers back in 2020, are petroleum-based products that the fossil fuel industry has strategically promoted to insulate itself from oil market crises. In fact, increasing plastics production, rather than decreasing it, is one way the industry has plotted to stay profitable as renewable energy gets cheaper and governments around the world start to do something about global warming, which the industry has knowingly been fueling for decades.
Given that the planet is observably drowning in trash, convincing governments to support increased plastics production requires lobbying. Just as fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP27—a conference ostensibly geared at emissions reductions—in staggering numbers, so did the INC meeting in Uruguay include representatives from the plastics industry who talked a lot about how great and essential plastics are.
The tough truth about fossil fuels and plastics—despite the Earthshot prize’s glossy, glamorous, and upbeat tone—is that neither one is likely to be rendered obsolete by a brilliant new invention. Notpla is not the only start-up to come up with a biodegradable alternative to plastic products. “Corn plastic” has been around for decades and has recently become cheap enough that even Walmart is starting to use it.
Several reports this week underlined how new technology and market forces alone won’t solve existential crises. Solar is set to overtake coal in energy generation within five years, the International Energy Agency announced this week. Renewables will be the largest source of electrical power by 2025. These would be stunning successes. And they still won’t be enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Even if wind and solar stay on track to produce a 57 percent decline in power-sector emissions by 2050, a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance calculated, we’d still reach 2.6 degrees Celsius of warming—triggering cataclysmic consequences.
None of this is to suggest that new, more sustainable products aren’t good news. But with both fossil fuels and plastics, production simply needs to be curtailed. Otherwise these industries will do everything in their power to ensure new technologies add to the existing supply of dirty energy or plastic packaging, rather than replacing petroleum’s role.
The U.S. government is still blocking international progress on this. Changing that will take work on a lot of different fronts. But in the meantime, banning industry representatives from these conferences wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
The EU on Tuesday settled on a new law forbidding the import of goods linked to deforestation.
Countries are badly underestimating the amount of methane emitted by “agricultural ponds” filled with manure and fertilizer runoff.
Stat of the Week
Elsewhere in the Ecosystem
Don’t miss this profile of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to halting climate policy. The TPPF has had its hand in a stunning number of pies over the past few years, from blocking a wind project off Martha’s Vineyard (hiding behind the fishing industry, of course) to blaming Biden for high gas prices; from spreading lies about the Texas blackouts to airing promotional videos for a power generating station credibly accused of poisoning the surrounding countryside. Naturally, having a lot of money helps with these projects:
As the organization’s profile grew, donations ballooned from $4.7 million in 2010 to $25.6 million in 2021, the most recent year for which records are available. That allowed the group to expand its mandate far beyond the Lone Star state.
The foundation said much of its funding comes from individuals. Because it is a nonprofit, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is not required to disclose its donors. But publicly available tax filings show that the group has received money from fossil fuel companies including the coal giant Peabody Energy, Exxon Mobil and Chevron.
This article first appeared in Apocalypse Soon, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.