Guangzhou, China — An alliance of global plastics resin makers and trade associations from the United States and Europe came to the Chinaplas trade fair May 17 with a very specific goal — recruit China's state-owned plastics giants into their efforts to address plastic pollution in the ocean.
Leaders of the World Plastics Council said they're trying to build stronger ties with the Chinese because Asia has become a key in the debate and battle over how to address plastic litter in the ocean.
The outreach is part of a larger political push by the WPC to build support and additional resources for solutions the industry prefers on marine litter.
WPC leaders, for example, told the Chinese executives that they like the direction the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum is taking on marine litter, because APEC says the problem is lack of government infrastructure in collecting waste.
They contrasted that sharply with the United Nation's environment program, which in February said it launching a "war on ocean plastic" and urging product bans. WPC leaders said they hoped to build on the APEC approach.
"We believe that establishing a regionally strong and credible approach in the Asia Pacific region will be a good defense against the more problematic proposals of the United Nations," said Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics division of the Washington-based American Chemistry Council.
During a public portion of the meeting, WPC officials said they hoped to get more Chinese firms to join. The meeting, on the sidelines of Chinaplas May 16-19 in Guangzhou, included executives of Sinopec, Chinachem and Sinochem.
"I have a very specific ask today, and that's that you join us," said Mark Nikolich, CEO of Braskem America Inc., a member of the WPC executive committee, at the meeting. "We ask for your membership. We ask for your support."
He said the WPC wants to be a global organization and he added that more participation from Chinese firms in programs and funding would help "to have the impact that we need."
Russell said in an interview in Guangzhou that having the Chinese more involved is not mainly about financial support.
"China is roughly a third of global production, and it is a destination for a lot of our products," Russell said. "It's a growing consumer market. Having the perspective of the Chinese producers at the table when we're talking about strategies is essential."
He said Chinese government initiatives in trying to improve waste management are attracting attention worldwide, and including that knowledge in the WPC's work would help build solutions in other countries.
He also noted that the Beijing-based China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation is part of the WPC.
"What we haven't had is the state-owned enterprises," Russell said.
More attention in China
The Chinese executives did not respond immediately to the request to join but several said they welcomed the dialogue. Li Shouqing, chairman of the CPCIF, noted that last year the government unveiled a six-point "green action plan" for the petrochemical industry.
He said the issue of marine pollution is getting more attention from China's government, and he said more importance should be given to plastic litter pollution both on land and in the oceans.
The WPC formed in 2013 in part because the global resin manufacturing industry wanted a forum where top executives would gather and make quick decisions on funding industry proposals, decisions that would be much harder for other industry groups to do quickly.
The WPC has spent more than $100,000 a year for the last three years, for example, to join the steering committee of the Trash Free Seas Alliance, which was formed in 2012 by the Washington-based non-governmental organization Ocean Conservancy.
The American Chemistry Council is also a member of that steering committee, along with Dow Chemical, Amcor, the World Wildlife Fund and Coca Cola.
At the meeting, the WPC presented statistics estimating that world plastics production will grow 50 percent in a decade, from about 250 million tons in 2015 to 380 million tons by 2025. More than sixty percent of that growth is estimated to come from Asia Pacific countries.
WPC officials said that economic growth and rising plastics consumption means marine litter will worsen unless steps are taken.
"It's an issue … of development having outpaced investment in collection and processing of waste," Russell said, noting that while Asia gets much of the attention now, the same problem potentially exists in Africa.
In his presentation in Guangzhou, Russell said the Trash Free Seas Alliance is discussing how to build funding models for boosting waste management infrastructure in emerging countries.
For example, he said the Closed Loop Fund, which has raised $100 million from industry to provide low-interest loans to communities across the U.S. to boost recycling, is considering setting up an international component to its work and is looking for a pilot project.
As well, APEC, which is made up of 21 member countries around the Pacific Ocean, including the United States and China, said in an April press release that it was studying how to make it more attractive for private financing to play a role in funding and getting returns on investment in waste collection in places like Indonesia.
The Guangzhou meeting included WPC representatives from CPChem, LyondellBasell, Sabic and the trade group PlasticsEurope.