News You Might Have Missed * Vol. 7, No. 28

Important but overlooked news from around the world.


“Just because it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s good.”

— Peter Skelton of the U.K.’s Waste and Resources Action Program, on bioplastics (see “Plastics,” below).


*Top Stories*
U.S. Fourth Fleet returns, heads south
Monsanto loses Canadian GMO dispute

Bioplastics: Friend or foe?

Memories of old Japan stir island dispute


* U.S. Fourth Fleet Returns, Heads South

Some Latin American nations are wondering if the return of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet to their coastlines signals the return of “gunboat diplomacy” as well, Agence France-Presse reports.

Representatives of Argentine president Cristina Kirchner have raised the question with visiting U.S. officials during a recent economic summit.

The fleet, which dates from World War II, was reactivated on July 1 after being mothballed for 58 years.

The Navy maintains the fleet is not equipped for offensive maneuvers: It would be used only for humanitarian assistance and preventing drug traffic, and will respect national sovereignty.

However, left-leaning governments in Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba believe the United States is using the fleet to flex its military muscle and for surveillance and intelligence operations.

–T.J. Johnston/


“Worries over U.S. fleet to dominate talks in Buenos Aires”
Agence France-Presse, July 10, 2008

* Monsanto Loses Canadian GMO Dispute

In late March, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser won a small victory against Monsanto Corporation after a decade-long legal engagement.

His struggle began in 1997 when the company sued Schmeiser after the its genetically modified canola plants were discovered growing on Schmeiser’s property in Saskatchewan.

Schmeiser said the modified canola was blown onto his property from a nearby farm, but Monsanto sued for $400,000, citing patent infringement and failure to pay technology fees.

Schmeiser and his wife became international spokespeople for farmer’s rights and the fight against genetically modified crops — but in 2004, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled against the Schmeisers, reinforcing Monsanto’s patent, but waiving punitive damages.

One year later, in 2005, Schmeiser found more of Monsanto’s plants on his farm, and after uprooting them billed Monsanto $660 for the labor.

The issue landed in small claims court, and Monsanto agreed to pay as long as the Schmeisers didn’t discuss the case.

The Schmeisers rejected the offer.

“There was no way we were going to give up our freedom of speech to a corporation,” said Mr. Schmeiser told The Globe & Mail of Toronto.

Finally, in March, Monsanto paid the fees with no conditions.

“After 10 years, finally justice has been served,” Mr. Schmeiser said.

–Julia Hengst/


“Grain Farmer Percy Schmeiser Claims Moral Victory in Seed Battle Against Monsanto”
The Globe & Mail (Canada), March 21, 2008


* Bioplastics: Friend or Foe?

Biodegradable plastics are raising hopes for a potential solution to overstuffed landfills, climate change and diminished fossil fuel resources.

Yet they may not be as quick a fix as people would like, and researchers face an uphill climb towards finding a truly sustainable, renewable and biodegradable plastic.

Bioplastics are sourced from plant-based materials rather than petroleum, and The Guardian reports that several universities in the United States are working to develop plastics that degrade in a matter of months.

Yet conventional plastics — which linger for hundreds of years and occupy up to a quarter of available landfill space in the United States — are currently cheaper to make.

This might change with rising oil prices worldwide, but meanwhile, petroleum-based plastic waste has spread from landfills to the ocean.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the world’s largest garbage dump floats in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between California and Hawaii — and 80 percent of it is plastic.

The so-called Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas and sits in a perfect storm of currents that holds it together.

The garbage patch, so massive it is unlikely ever to be cleaned up, brings long-term problems.

Instead of organically degrading, plastics slowly break down into smaller pieces that are eaten by marine animals and wreak havoc on their systems.

And that’s just the plastic that floats.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Greenpeace as saying 70 percent of all plastics that end up in the ocean sink to the bottom, posing additional risks to sea life.

Biodegradable plastics could help, an Ocean Conservancy spokesman told the Chronicle.

However, coming up with a durable, long-lasting bioplastic is challenging and expensive.

“It would be hard to expect a plastic product with excellent resistance against wearing, tearing and weathering during its service life to also have biodegradability after usable service life,” Dr. KB Lee, a chemical engineering professor in Missouri, told The Guardian.

Furthermore, all bioplastics are not as green as they seem.

The term “bioplastics” can refer to materials that are renewable and biodegradable, as well as to plastics that merely have some renewable materials in them, reports the International Herald Tribune.

One common type of compostable bioplastic is actually sourced from inorganic petroleum — and even the terms “biodegradable” and “compostable” aren’t necessarily what they seem.

According to The Guardian, plastic labeled as compostable won’t always break down once it’s thrown away, and often requires expensive digesters that most landfills lack.

“Just because it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s good,” Peter Skelton, who works for a government-funded waste program in the United Kingdom, told the newspaper. “In theory bioplastics are good. But in practice there are lots of barriers.”

–Julia Hengst/


“Old idea of using bioplastics gets a new lease of life”
The Guardian, July 10, 2008

“Bioplastics: The challenge of viability”
The International Herald Tribune, July 6, 2008

“Continent-size toxic stew of plastic trash fouling swath of Pacific Ocean”
The San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 2007

“The plastic killing fields”
The Sydney Morning Herald, December 29, 2007

“‘Sustainable’ bio-plastic can damage the environment”
The Guardian, April 26, 2008


* Memories of Old Japan Stir Island Dispute

A new school curriculum in Japan is opening old wounds for its neighbors.

South Korea has recalled its ambassador to protest a government educational guideline that considers two contested islands to be Japanese territory.

The islands, referred to as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, have been under South Korean control since 1953, according to the Korea Herald.

The newspaper reports that Japan’s new guidelines also target four islands currently claimed by Russia.

The new guidelines are set to take affect in April 2012, and recommends stating in both instances that the Korean and Russian claims are in dispute.

The Japan Times reported that the government phrased the statement to both ease South Korean concerns, and also teach patriotism in the classroom.

Ambassador Kwon Chul Hyun acknowledged the strain on relations this is causing.

“Japan has much to lose from this,” he said to Japan Today.

Other Korean politicians voiced their distaste for Japan’s announcement, reflecting the two nations’ history of colonization and war.

“Japan’s current actions are no different from that of its imperialist tactics a century ago when it plundered the Korean Peninsula,” said ruling party leader Hong Joon Pyo in a speech Monday at the National Assembly in Seoul.

An article by BBC also noted that possession of the islands is more important to South Korea than good relations with Japan.

In 2005, the Japanese ambassador to South Korea caused a stir when he asserted Japan’s ownership of the area, prompting accusations that Japan was trying to “whitewash” its history of aggression with other nations.

Tensions rose again in 2006, when Japan attempted to conduct a maritime survey of the islands, a move South Korea responded to by stationing patrol boats in the area.

At the time, then-South Korean foreign minister Ban Ki Moon, now U.N. Secretary General, was reported to have said that Japan’s claim was an attempt to distort history.

The two islands are not uninhabited. According to the Japan Times, a small South Korean garrison is stationed there.

The dispute is one of many flashpoints between Japan and its neighbors over its military history; similar complaints emerge whenever Japanese politicians visit the Yasukuni shrine, where a number of soldiers convicted of war crimes — but who are considered heros by nationalists — are buried.

Japan’s territorial dispute has also targeted four islands claimed by Russia following World War II.

The two nations have had strained diplomatic ties over their ownership since then.

The China Post reported that Boris Yeltsin attempted to open talks with Japan in the early 1990s, but met with little success.

The topic was discussed at last week’s G-8 conference the Moscow Times reported, with no resolution being reached between Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

–John Hornberg/


“Korea recalls ambassador to Tokyo”
Korea Herald, July 15, 2008

“Claim to Seoul-held islets strain ties”
Japan Times, July 15, 2008

“Dispute continues between Japan, South Korea over islets”
Japan Times, July 14, 2008

“Fukuda tells Lee Japan will state Takeshima ownership”
Japan Today, July 14, 2008

“Kurils deal linked to economic ties”
Moscow Times, July 9, 2008

“Islands disputed with Japan feel Russia’s boom”
China Post, Sept. 15, 2007

“Seoul and Tokyo hold island talks”
BBC News, April 20, 2006

“S Korea ire at Japan island move”
BBC News, April 19, 2006

Editor: Josh Wilson

Interns: Julia Hengst, John Hornberg, T.J. Johnston

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One thought on “News You Might Have Missed * Vol. 7, No. 28

  1. Production of just one million tonnes of bioplastic would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by FOUR millions tonnes a year, this is why bioplastics are booming, and it’s why we should all change to bioplastics wherever it is practical to do so. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will help reverse the climate change that is responsible for many crop failures, thus increasing the amount of food available in the world.

    Forget ‘degradable’ and ‘oxo-degradable’ plastics, they are made from ordinary high CO2 generating plastic, the fact they ‘might’ biodegrade is irrelevant as they have already done their damage by then, by increasing CO2 levels by a factor of at least double their own weight.

    Bioplastics use as little as 25% of the energy used in making plastic.

    Many bioplastics are compostable at home, the best one’s for this are potato starch and blends of potato and corn starch, these are available from Stanelco in the UK,

    Waste and carrier bags made in the UK from this Bioplastic are available from Comp-Bio Products at or made in Canada by Indaco Manufacturing at or in several EU countries by Sphere S.A at or Australia/N.Z via BioPak at or in the Middle East via Isracaps at

    Read the FAQ on biopastics, these are the facts not the hype, rumour, or old wives tales about Bioplastic