We are fascinated by plastic. We get caught up admiring its appearance and utility, totally ignoring the collateral damage it causes to our health and environment. The extent of the damage being done to our life-supporting planet is mind-blowing, and this has finally reached global public awareness.
Of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since 1950, half was produced in the past 16 years. In the face of all this, the petrochemical industry has plans to produce another 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic in the next 20 years.
By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the seas and oceans. This is due to plastic overproduction and the still unchecked spillage of plastic waste into the seas and oceans from landfills, ships and rivers.
Fish populations are decreasing at an alarming rate because of industrial scale overfishing, ocean acidification and global warming – the latter two caused by carbon emissions.
As if this was not enough, studies have shown that plastic is also present throughout the human food chain and is found in our blood, digestive system and faeces.
More and more people are separating plastic for recycling; however, this is not really working for two reasons. Firstly, the industry is producing single use and other plastics at increasing rates. Plastic is being forced upon us by industries replacing all other packaging with it and is used in anything and everything from absurd, singly wrapped toothpicks to food and medicinal products that previously used to be contained in glass bottles.
Secondly, the majority of plastic waste is ending up in landfills, creating plastic waste mountains in developing countries and finding its way back into the environment and oceans. Moreover, two thirds of the plastic waste separated at source for recycling is not clean enough for further processing and ends up in landfills or is incinerated anyway.
Landfilled plastic continues to survive, fragmenting to ever smaller bits. It pollutes through leaching and combustion or from being carried away by rain run-off into the rivers, seas and oceans. Incineration produces greenhouse gas emissions that feed into the global warming crisis.
We really do need to understand that everything on this Earth is interconnected. When humanity introduces a damaging substance into the biosphere, it never really goes away. The biosphere is a closed system and any noxious substance we introduce into it will eventually come back to bite us or future generations.
Recycling is also expensive and has low or no margins. It is never going to attract the private sector investment it would need. The EU has been quite effective at getting its citizens to separate waste.
On the other hand, the EU has failed abysmally in providing the recycling facilities to deal with all the separated waste. Rather, it has been exporting 60 per cent of its plastic waste to China.
Indeed, China has closed its doors to the importation of waste from other countries in 2017.
In response, European and North American waste producing countries then moved their exportation of trash to other Asian and African countries with far less stringent environmental laws such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.
This shameless greenwashing strategy worked for a short while but is now fast unravelling as the trash-receiving countries have woken up to the severe health and environmental risks posed by being the world’s rubbish bin. In an ironic twist, these countries are also being largely blamed for being the primary cause of the plastic pollution of the oceans.
All countries have failed to successfully manage their plastic waste
The fact is that they have been totally overrun by shiploads of European and North American plastic rubbish – rubbish that has often been dumped or discarded only to end up as marine litter. Some reports estimate that the world’s oceans are littered with 5.25 trillion plastic items.
Malaysia is set to return 3,000 tonnes of non-recyclable or low-quality plastic to the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia and other countries. Malaysia is now refusing to be the dumping ground for the rest of the world. “Garbage is traded under the pretext of recycling,” Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said. “Malaysians are forced to suffer poor air quality due to open burning of plastics which leads to health hazard, polluted rivers, illegal landfills and a host of other related problems.”
Kuala Lumpur banned imports of contaminated plastic waste in October 2018 and returned five containers of waste to Spain in May 2019. In May, the Philippines shipped back 69 containers of rotting waste that it had received from Canada more than five years ago as nations in the region increasingly reject serving as dumpsites for wealthier States.
The United Nations are backing a proposed amendment, supported by 187 countries, to the international regulations governing the movement of hazardous waste. This will mean that such exports will require prior consent from the governments of the destination countries. Tellingly, the USA has opted out of this new accord.
This pushback by Asian and African countries is right and overdue. If we are to solve the global plastic waste problem, each country needs to take responsibility for its own waste.
If you cannot dispose of it in an ecologically sensible way, don’t import the products. It does not really get simpler than that. This is common sense.
Some countries and cities have taken unilateral limited actions to counter the plastics scourge, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco, Taiwan, India, France, Vanuatu, Taiwan, Zimbabwe and Australia, with New Delhi, Malibu, Seattle and Montreal mainly focussing on plastic bags, straws, cutlery, stirrers and the like.
The EU will be restricting the following plastic items by 2021: single-use plastic cutlery (forks, knives, spoons and chopsticks), single-use plastic plates, plastic straws, cotton bud sticks made of plastic, plastic balloon sticks, oxo-degradable plastics and food containers as well as expanded polystyrene cups. The EU also plans to collect 90 per cent of plastic bottles by 2029 and implement a wider application of the polluter pays principle. This is far too little, and certainly too late.
It is high time that, as consumers, we demand that unnecessary and toxic plastic no longer be produced. We must insist that all packaging must be 100 per cent reusable or compostable.
We must make it clear that we want the phasing out of the production of single use plastic within the next three years – this means cutting plastic production by 50 per cent.
This is not a demand problem. This is a supply problem. The petrochemical industry owns all the plastic manufacturing plants and is forecasting an increase of 40 per cent in the production of plastic for the next decade. Banning single plastic items will not work. For every single plastic item that is banned, another hundred new ones are produced using plastic rather than other materials.
All countries have failed to successfully manage their plastic waste. When it comes to plastic, there is only one option – stop it at the border. All persons who are able to affect outcomes must decide on which side they stand. We all should be mindful that we have stirred the wind, and that, if we do not hastily do enough of the right things to fix this, we shall without a doubt reap the whirlwind.