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Pope Francis Calls for Global Regulations to Solve the Oceans' Plastic Pollution Problem

A lack of international regulations did not cause the plastic pollution crisis. Imposing them now won't fix the problem.

Max Rossi/REUTERS/NewscomMax Rossi/REUTERS/NewscomPope 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.

Photo Credit: Max Rossi/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • Hamster of Doom||

    And Harvey Weinstein is looking forward to bringing the hard fight to the NRA.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    I feel bad for the devout just trying to be decent human beings and have to put up with this schmuck.

  • Rockabilly||

    How about controlling priests cocks?

  • perlchpr||

    Recycled ocean plastic chastity belts?

  • Inigo Montoya||

    "...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."

    Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes looking into this issue would realize this. That the Pope doesn't suggests that he just picked a hot topic du jour and spoke off the cuff about it. That adds to the impression he's clueless.

    Besides, he should be addressing issues much closer to home at this point. Did he sleep through all the recent news about entire networks of church officials perpetuating child molestation? It's high time he finally cleaned the fetid, stinking mess in his own house rather than worrying about plastic garbage coming from countries on the other side of the world.

  • JFree||

    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.

    Except that's not the solution at all. Because a significant portion of their trash is exported to them by us. By volume (possibly even by value tho I'm not sure of that) it is our largest export to Asia. And since we don't actually do much to separate our recyclables from trash - that trash ends up getting passed on down the line in Asia to more marginal 'processors' until it just gets thrown into their ocean.

    It's not their waste management capital infrastructure that needs to expand its capacity to handle our trash. That's just a temporary marginal distortion created by massive trade deficits and no pricing of externalities.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    >>>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.

    Clever, Britches. Good article.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Lighten up, Francis.

    The mule was better.

  • ||

    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.

    I stopped reading the article after this sentence. It really is a race to the bottom as to whether I hate the Pope or Reason's writers more.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    It's not even close, as far as I'm concerned.

    Unless all those Reason summer interns are being systematically molested and it's all getting repeatedly swept under the rug, it's really no contest Besides, the recent debate article with KMW and Nick went a long way to restoring my faith in Reason.

  • ||

    It's not even close, as far as I'm concerned.

    I will agree that it's not fair. There are half the staff/writers whom, if we woke up tomorrow with them in charge of the Catholic religion, would probably fair better than the current pontiff. The other half, however, I certainly wouldn't expect them to do much more to clean up the molestation and wouldn't be surprised if we wound up having a crusade or two.

    The equivocation in Britschgi's rather conclusive or summary statement that I quoted above pretty clearly states that the Pope isn't wrong to take a minute away from dealing with child molesters (if that's what he was doing) in order to address the plastic dumping problem.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You can hate both writers and the Pope.

    The Pope is deflecting sexual scandal....again.

    Reason writers are doing the nonsense that they do...again.

  • ||

    It's not wrong to say that several Reason writers have their own set of agenda items that they would prefer the Pope prioritize over sexual abuse scandals.

  • I can't even||

    This is the really the biggest problem in the Catholic Church right now?

  • NoVaNick||

    Its as if the Catholic Church doesn't have any other problems...ahem...

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    The faithful, he said, should pray for those "who contribute to the development and application of international regulations on the seas."

    And for the government firepower to enforce them?

  • Dillinger||

    bigger fish to fry.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Jesus Christ!

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    And to think that his ascension to Pope was done in order to get the global media to praise the Catholic Church for its "progressiveness".

    The funny thing is, the early Christians couldn't have given a tinker's damn about sustaining the Earth--they saw it as the Devil's playground and something that needed to be cleansed rather than preserved (even Christ is quoted as saying "my kingdom is not of this world), and their efforts to proselytize reflected that belief. They rebelled against and condemned the world as a sinful cesspit, not aggressively seek to gain the praise of its corrupt leaders and institutions, and they were often martyred for it.

    From the perspective of the early Christians, Francis is about as close to a false prophet as one could get.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I don't see this as an excuse. I'm having trouble thinking of any institution that actually got better over time. It seems that, by their very nature, institutions tend to get further away from their founding ideals and more beholden to power grabbers the longer they exist.

  • Echospinner||

    Meanwhile i am very interested in the ocean cleanup project set to launch its first large scale beta test this month.

    A very innovative idea using a system of floating bars and nets to capture and concentrate the plastic after a period of time a boat comes to take it away to be recycled. Looks like low cost and almost no external energy required.

    Don't know if it will work but cool idea and more productive than these silly straw bans.

  • Restoras||

    Is it automated, like a giant Roomba? How hard would it be to, I dunno, take some mothballed Navy ships and just have them automated and programmed to gather all the waste in one area - kinda like Wall-E....

  • perlchpr||

    Is it automated, like a giant Roomba?

    Even better, it's automated and driven by wave action.

    https://www.theoceancleanup.com/technology/

  • Agammamon||

    Its a scam - basically a bunch of activists wasting money instead of doing something productive.

    . . . its low density (4 particles per cubic meter) prevents detection by satellite imagery, or even by casual boaters or divers in the area.


    The density of the stuff is so low you can't tell tell when you're in it. It would require filtering trillions and trillions of gallons. They're talking about leaving a floating hazard to navigation out there potentially for years at a time in order to shift the density from 4 particles per cubic meter to 3. They will, of course, need people to constantly travel out there to monitor the equipment and how well its doing its job - funded by the taxpayer. Of course.

    By the end of that 'beta' I wouldn't be surprised that there's more debris left from it breaking apart than it collected out of the water.

  • DiegoF||

    I heard about this yesterday. Disgusting. What a disgrace. The bright side is his game is nearly up. The sight of His Holiness suddenly having "nothing to say" in one of those those pope plane press chitchats where he usually runs his yap like your auntie at family events after a few drinks--I don't think it can ever be the same again, even for his biggest apologists.

    Besides, the world has changed a lot over the past five years. The progs (and neolibs) feel far less use for him, and have far less patience for anyone with his heresies from their dogma. And the antiestablishmentarianism that traditionalist Catholics have developed for decades is rapidly seeping into observant Catholicism in general.

    Francis's pontificate, for all the initial good feelz, was always going to be judged in the end by his administrative prowess. (It was what Benedict stepped aside for in the first place.) And people were already rapidly losing patience with his incompetence. At this point he can put plastic straw bans in the catechism for all it will help him. He will not be able to play this game any longer; he cannot say, "Ooh, look over there! Climate change and refugees!" when confronted with the fruits of his reprehensible failures.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    According to what I've been hearing, his hands are supposedly tied. What may have started as a problem of parish priests molesting kids has grown to include bishops and cardinals who themselves were molesters before rising in the ranks and who now protect their fellow molesters and perpetuate the whole rotten culture behind it. If the Pope really focused on the problem, he'd lose his entire power base.

    Well so be it! Too bad if you make some enemies! We're talking about child rape here! How many of us, if we worked at a company where everyone from memebers of senior management to the people in the mailroom were diddling kids, would just turn a blind eye and keep quietly collecting their pay check? How could you live with yourself knowing you were pretending nothing is going on when it's obvious something is, just out of fear of rocking the boat too much and losing your job? Give me a break.

  • ||

    Well so be it! Too bad if you make some enemies! We're talking about child rape here! How many of us, if we worked at a company where everyone from memebers of senior management to the people in the mailroom were diddling kids, would just turn a blind eye and keep quietly collecting their pay check? How could you live with yourself knowing you were pretending nothing is going on when it's obvious something is, just out of fear of rocking the boat too much and losing your job? Give me a break.

    This also ignores the fact that the metaphorical place of business is devoted to rooting out evil, exposing dirty secrets, and patterning itself after a martyr doing right in the name of a greater good. This can't be the first time this, or any, Pope has faced, even just conceptually, the easy vs. right dilemma.

  • Agammamon||

    How many examples, throughout the history of the Church, are there of Popes doing the hard right instead of the easy wrong?

    Let's also not forget that this current scandal isn't new. Pedophilia didn't become 'structural' in the last 20 decades.

    The last time this reared its head was under JPII. He knew about it, he covered it up until he couldn't anymore, then he made excuses until it went away. His successor (Benedict) knew this was happening, his predecessors knew - no one in the Church hierarchy had, at any time, the balls to say enough's enough.

  • Kivlor||

    This is really more of an excuse than it is a reality. The Holy See has complete authority to defrock and create bishops and cardinals. With this in mind, although removing a bunch of bad actors and their confidants would be demoralizing to those removed, and their allies, it would give the Holy Father the opportunity to select a whole new power-base that is in favor of this move so not demoralized but invigorated by it. The new power-base would be loyal to him, which would actually solidify Papal Authority.

    Right now, Francis has the Casus Belli needed to literally replace anyone that would oppose him. A wise king--and he is a kind of king--would not waste this opportunity to clear out the disobedient and troublesome Aristocracy and replace it with a loyal one. When you consider this, it becomes all the more alarming that he won't do it. It indicates that the people in power are there because he wants them there, because they are loyal; and that those who want something done are a form of insurgency in the eyes of Francis.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Anyone who gives money to the Catholic Church racket or needs a priest to fix things for them is a fool.

    We live in a free country, so that's your right. You're a fool nonetheless.

  • Rat on a train||

    You're not my supervisor.

  • Brandybuck||

    Okay, it is now beyond question that the dude is senile. Previous dude at least had the decency to retire before dementia set it. Sigh.

  • Juice||

    Pope Francis is deeply concerned about the oceans filling with plastic

    Right about now shouldn't he be more concerned about smaller things being filled?

  • BearOdinson||

    At least my ancestors had the common decency to be open about raping and pillaging.

    Seriously though, I have no great love for Christianity in general, nor this doofus in particular. And the fact that millions of people actually care what he thinks as religious doctrine, is one of the reasons.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Hey, Pope Francis.
    How many migrants are you allowing to live in Vatican City this year?

  • Rat on a train||

    Do they have an unaccompanied minor program?

  • Eddy||

    This really is the last straw.

    Don't issue any more straw epistles, Francis.

    Suck it up and resign.

    Do it, or I'll think of more puns.

  • DiegoF||

    Addressing a claim made by Pope Francis? Please; who takes his authority on such things seriously anymore? You're pretty much attacking a straw man.

  • Eddy||

    This latest bit of foolishness is the straw that broke the camel's back.

  • DiegoF||

    Indeed, those who still think he can spin straw into gold are few and far between at this point.

  • Enemy of the State||

    Dammit that's the last straw!

  • DiegoF||

    ...Or is it? Let's put it to the people. Straw poll?

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    You're really heaping at straws now.

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    *grasping

    Fucking autocorrect

  • Enemy of the State||

    Who ever thought the Catholic church would try to resurrect its medieval alliance with the state in order to better control mankind?

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Yes, but will he (the Pope) support Global Priest Control?

  • drisco304||

    Perhaps Francis is arguing for a maximum age for anyone running for Pope.

  • TigerMom87||

    The Pope should stick to papal issues. He's not a scientist nor a politician.

  • An Owl Named Dur||

    To be fair, he's not much of a pope either.

  • PG23COLO||

    The pope needs to clean his own house. The Catholic church needs to end their celibacy requirement, in the interest of protecting children from sexual abuse by priests and nuns.

  • Kivlor||

    There's little evidence that this is going to solve the issue of diddling kids. It would only help cultivate a crop of children to be harmed.

    The issue is homosexuals in the priesthood. But we can't discuss that because they are sacred, so we have to blame "clericalism".

  • Fats of Fury||

    Uh oh! Run for your lives altar boys, the priesthood is going bareback.

  • Salero21||

    Wow, this little insignificant IDOLATER, is really kind of Moronic.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Wow. An actual article.

    And Trump not mentioned once. That's probably not just a mere coincidence.

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