A recent cover story in the New Scientist has the odd title Fixing planet plastic: How we’ll really solve our waste problem (pay-walled). Odd because the article tells us there is no perfect solution except avoidance, and that plastic is so useful that if we didn’t have it we would have to invent it.
The article tells us:
- the early 20th century, humanity has produced an estimated 8300 million tonnes of the stuff. Around three-quarters has been thrown away, and 80 per cent of that has drifted into the environment or gone into landfill. Eight million tonnes a year end up in the ocean – 5 trillion pieces and counting.
Here’s a graph of global plastic production:
The UN report Single-use Plastics: A Roadmap for Sustainability tells us that if the growth in plastic production continues at its current rate, then by 2050 the plastics industry may account for 20 per cent of the world’s total oil consumption. Here’s the growth in the global plastic waste stream:
Here, from the New Scientist, is who makes plastic and what sector it is for:
NS tells us:
- The nature of the problem varies according to where in the world you live. Five countries in Asia – China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – are responsible for 55 to 60 per cent of all the plastics that leak from land to ocean, according to a 2015 report by Ocean Conservancy and the consultants McKinsey. Another study in 2017 found that around 90 per cent of river-borne plastic was coming from just 10 rivers, eight of them in Asia.
There are 2 billion people in the world with no proper waste collection systems.
Recycling is a wonderful idea, but the dark secret of the recycling bin is that waste plastic is essentially worthless. It’s cheaper to start again. However, producing a tonne of recycled plastic generates between 1 and 3 tonnes less CO2 than a tonne made fresh from oil.
- For many, the solution is to give waste plastic a value. That is the philosophy behind deposit schemes, for example, in which consumers pay a small refundable fee for plastic bottles. These have transformed disposable bottles into collectibles in several US states and European countries. The UK looks set to follow suit, while most of Australia should be operating deposit schemes by 2019.
The bigger vision is to create a “circular economy” for plastics. Out goes “take-make-dispose”, a one-way journey from oil to landfill or incineration. In comes a system where producers are incentivised to make reusable, recyclable or compostable products, while the recycling industry learns to scoop up all the detritus so no piece of litter is left behind.
Globally, some 50 per cent of PET is collected for recycling, but only about 7 per cent is turned into new bottles.
PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate, the particular form of plastic used to make bottles.
- Of all plastics, just 14 per cent is collected for recycling around the world, with still less actually reprocessed. The rest is destined for incineration or landfill, where it will persist for centuries.
One of the problems is colour, which contaminates the usable waste stream. In our household we have adopted the practice of removing coloured tops of containers, sending them to landfill.
Avoiding plastic is not as easy as it looks.
- A cotton tote bag must be used 131 times before its environmental cost falls below that of a disposable plastic bag, mostly because of the impact of growing cotton. Similarly, you must use a steel water bottle 500 times for its carbon footprint to shrink to less than that of a disposable PET bottle.
Everyone will be familiar with images of plastic floating in the ocean, enormous plastic gyres, beaches and corals covered with bits of plastic and marine animals ingesting the stuff. We are told that by mid-century there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.
I’ve heard several times now that much of the plastic off the North Queensland coast comes from Asia.
Unfortunately plastic does not break down in the ocean, but it can break up into tiny microplastic bits, which enter the food chain, including us, where it can damage health. This from the UN, for example, is cautionary:
Plastic waste causes a plethora of problems when it leaks into the environment. Plastic bags can block waterways and exacerbate natural disasters. By clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic bags can increase the transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria. High concentrations of plastic materials, particularly plastic bags, have been found blocking the airways and stomachs of hundreds of species. Plastic bags are often ingested by turtles and dolphins who mistake them for food. There is evidence that the toxic chemicals added during the manufacture of plastic transfer to animal tissue, eventually entering the human food chain. Styrofoam products, which contain carcinogenic chemicals like styrene and benzene, are highly toxic if ingested, damaging the nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs. The toxins in Styrofoam containers can leach into food and drinks. In poor countries, plastic waste is often burned for heat or cooking, exposing people to toxic emissions. Disposing of plastic waste by burning it in open-air pits releases harmful gases like
furan and dioxin.
The UN has declared war on plastic in the ocean, but current high-profile ocean clean-up projects are between them removing just 0.5 per cent of marine plastic trash.
The UN has formulated a 10-step program that governments might adopt:
1. Target the most problematic single-use plastics by conducting a baseline assessment to identify the most problematic single-use plastics, as well as the current causes, extent and impacts of their mismanagement.
2. Consider the best actions to tackle the problem (e.g. through regulatory, economic, awareness, voluntary actions) …
3. Assess the potential social, economic and environmental impacts (positive and negative) of the preferred short-listed instruments/actions…
4. Identify and engage key stakeholder groups …
5. Raise public awareness about the harm caused by single-used plastics. Clearly explain the decision and any punitive measures
that will follow.
6. Promote alternatives. Before the ban or levy comes into force, assess the availability of alternatives. Ensure that the pre-
conditions for their uptake in the market are in place…
7. Provide incentives to industry by introducing tax rebates or other conditions to support its transition…
8. Use revenues collected from taxes or levies on single-use plastics to maximize the public good. Support environmental projects or boost local recycling with the funds. Create jobs in the plastic recycling sector with seed funding.
9. Enforce the measure chosen effectively, by making sure that there is clear allocation of roles and responsibilities.
10. Monitor and adjust the chosen measure if necessary and update the public on progress.
All manner of ‘solutions’ are being tried, depending on the kind of plastic and the circumstances. Incineration is popular in Europe, generating heat and power, but CO2 and other gasses are produced, plus pollutants in the scrubbers. Other solutions include biodegradable substitutes and bugs that produce plastic-eating enzymes.
Queensland has just followed some other jurisdictions by banning single-use plastic bags at the checkout. Places that have experience with this say that more bin-liners are bought. We have always reused such bags to put stuff in to go to landfill. Elsewhere the experience is that more small bags are bought as a result, often containing more plastic and some of these find their way into the environment. In net terms, though, the policy is beneficial.
In April Australia’s environment ministers committed to eliminating all packaging going to landfill by 2025:
Ministers endorsed a target of 100 percent of Australian packaging being recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier. Governments will work with the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO), representing over 900 leading companies, to deliver this target. Ministers endorsed the development of targets for the use of recycled content in packaging, and this will be closely monitored.
From the UN report, examples of impacts of mismanaged single-use plastics:
and the global flow of plastic packaging waste in 2015:
From the BBC, the 15 countries producing the most plastic waste in 2010:
Update: On June 26, the Australian Senate Standing References Committee on Environment and Communications tabled in the Senate its final report titled Never waste a crisis: the waste and recycling industry in Australia. Here are the first five recommendations:
8.18 The committee recommends that the Australian Government prioritise the establishment of a circular economy in which materials are used, collected, recovered, and re-used, including within Australia.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government show leadership through the urgent implementation of the 16 strategies established under the National Waste Policy.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government prioritise waste reduction and recycling above waste-to-energy, and seek a commitment through the Meeting of Environment Ministers of all levels of government to the waste hierarchy.
The committee recommends that the Australian and state and territory governments agree to a phase out of petroleum-based single-use plastics by 2023. The scope of this commitment would require careful consideration and should be developed through the Meeting of Environment Ministers.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government establish a Plastics Co-Operative Research Centre (CRC) to lead Australia’s research efforts into reducing plastic waste, cleaning up our oceans and finding end-markets for recovered plastic.
Update 2: The Senate report includes a waste hierarchy from a submission by the Waste Management Association of Australia: