Citing lack of capacity, the fossil industry is walking away from its much-touted Renew Oceans project, a flagship in its pledge to spend US$1.5 billion over five years to help clean up the world’s most polluted rivers.
Conducted under the auspices of the Singapore-based Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), a non-profit set up by Big Oil in 2018, Renew Oceans first opened its offices in India in 2019, Reuters explains in a scathing report. Then, it went precisely nowhere.
“A wheelbarrow and a handful of metal grids for capturing litter, emblazoned with the words ‘Renew Oceans,’ sit rusting outside an empty, padlocked office in the Indian city of Varanasi, a short walk from the Ganges,” the news agency writes. “It is all that is left of a program, funded by some of the world’s biggest oil and chemical companies, that they said could solve a runaway ocean plastic waste crisis which is killing marine life—from plankton to whales—and clogging tropical beaches and coral reefs.”
While counsel for Renew Oceans claims the organization made “important progress,” it abandoned its work after deciding it did not have the capacity to tackle the scale of the problem. According to four people involved in the project, the “progress” they claim added up to less than a single tonne of waste collected from the Ganges River between the project’s launch in 2019 and its shutdown in March 2020. It had promised to collect 45 tonnes in its first year, and 450 tonnes in 2020.
Meanwhile, “more than half a million tonnes of plastic trash enters the Ganges every year,” writes Reuters. “There is no government data on how much of that is collected.”
The dismal failure of Renew Oceans comes two years after Dow Inc. CEO Jim Fitterling declared it “one of the best projects we’ve got” at the alliance’s 2019 launch. Some $5 million was invested into Renew Energy, including plans for “state-of-the-art technology to collect and recycle plastic waste,” such as vending machine-style citizen collection depots that gave grocery vouchers and “pyrolysis devices to turn plastic trash into diesel.”
In the end, protypes were deployed, “but regularly malfunctioned.”
The Renew Oceans initiative was just one piece of AEPW’s larger goal “to divert millions of tons of plastic waste in more than 100 at-risk cities across the globe” within five years.
To date, more than a dozen programs have been announced, including a cleanup project in Ghana that has managed to collect 300 tonnes of plastic waste, and another in the Philippines that has sent 21 tonnes to the recycling factory.
But such efforts make barely a dent. Reuters cites the cases of Indonesia and India, which “both produce more than three million tonnes of plastic waste a year that is not collected or recycled.”
Reuters adds that Big Oil and Big Plastic happily wave the flag for programs like Renew Oceans, all while spending “vastly more on expanding production than recycling, which has been rendered uneconomic by the proliferation of cheap new plastic.”
The news bureau also flags the deep cynicism and corruption in such marketing: “Chevron Phillips used footage of Renew Oceans’ workers collecting plastic on the Ganges in a video promoting its sustainability efforts in July, even though the project had stopped operations in March,” writes Reuters. The fossil giant did not respond to requests for comment.
“These are some of the richest and most powerful companies on the planet, and what they’ve come up with are some small community litter picking projects that make for nice photo opportunities,” said John Hocevar, oceans campaigns director for Greenpeace USA. “There is no way to reduce plastic waste without reducing plastic production.”