06/15/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

At Rio+20, Just One Word...

The unforgettable line in the 1967 classic movie The Graduate comes from Mr. McQuire when he sums up for Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) what he sees as the key to the world.

 “I just want to say one word to you -- just one word,” McGuire (Walter Brooke) says solemnly.


Here at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the word of the day seems to be plastics.

We’re learning more about the dangers of plastics every day, including BPA in our food containers. As the Washington Post reported this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finally considering a ban on BPA in infant formula packaging (although good luck getting it out of anything else).

The problem of plastic pollution in our oceans, meanwhile, will be highlighted in a series of panel discussions and conferences on Saturday. About 80 percent of the pollution that ends up in our oceans is plastic, including sandwich bags that choke sea turtles and monofilament fishing line that ensnares sea lions and seals.

All the plastic talk culminates next Thursday at an all-day conference at Rio+20 called Plasticity. It’s designed to highlight the growing impacts of plastic on our environment and how we can reduce them.

Bosses are on the way

Rio+20 doesn’t officially open until next Wednesday, but a lot of the work is being done in advance to (hopefully) smooth the way for when world leaders arrive. (Although President Obama still isn’t planning to make the trip, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now leading the U.S. delegation.)

The final UN preparatory committee meeting (in Rio+20 parlance, Prep Comm) is scheduled to end Friday -- not that anybody actually expects the negotiations to wrap up on time. That would be too easy. Most likely, the talks will go deep into the weekend as negotiators try to inch closer to a working document on sustainability goals that their bosses could actually sign.

We’ve already had more than a year of hemming and hawing by negotiators to create a draft document for presidents, prime ministers and kings to consider when they arrive. The first draft (again, in Rio+20 jargon, the “zero draft”) was released in January. Since then, the document has been revised half a dozen times. Here’s the work in progress.

Going deep on oceans

Not surprisingly for a city on the edge of the Atlantic, the oceans are a hot topic in Rio. Saturday at Rio+20 consists of daylong discussions, conferences and demonstrations about everything from ocean acidification to overfishing.

According to the journal Science and the BBC, we need to do more and talk less about oceans. Little has been done to protect marine life since the last Rio summit 20 years ago, according to publications. As Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, tells the BBC: “Almost every commitment made by governments to protect the oceans has not been achieved.”

Maybe more attention might help.

An Internet film channel devoted to oceans coverage at Rio+20 is about to get rolling. Meanwhile, some folks are trying to raise awareness about ocean health even though they’re thousands of miles away -- including 5,000 kids and a few adults who turned themselves into a beached shark in Los Angeles to protest ocean pollution.

And check out this video from big wave surfer Laird Hamilton on the recent “peace paddle” for the ocean that he did with the Natural Resources Defense Council.