A world drowning in plastic

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.

Recommendation 2

    The committee recommends that the Australian Government show leadership through the urgent implementation of the 16 strategies established under the National Waste Policy.

Recommendation 3

    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.

Recommendation 4


    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.

Recommendation 5

    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:

26 thoughts on “A world drowning in plastic”

  1. Yes, thanks a lot Brian. Very timely and useful post.

    Way back in the 1940s and 1950s, we used heavy strong brown paper shopping bags with string handles. These were used and re-used until they fell apart. We also accepted a lot of our groceries in smaller single-use degradable brown paper bags.
    There’s probably no good reason why we can’t recycle that mountain of “unsaleable” (since the Chinese bans) waste paper to make new brown paper of all sizes – provided some idiot doesn’t strengthen them and waterproof them with non-biodegradable plastics.

  2. Christoph and Graham, bitte sehr!

    I’ve added a bit after the statement about it being cheaper to start from scratch than recycle, so it now reads:

    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.

  3. The boss lady is taking an active interest in reducing our plastic consumption. She has just bought some stainless steel straws, bought reusable coffee cups for take-away coffee, made some washable mesh bags to replace the plastic bags supermarkets use to put loose fruit etc in and no doubt continue with her crusade. I do things like putting things like broccoli loose in the shopping trolley instead of in a plastic bag and refuse to buy prepackaged fruit etc.
    Quite a lot to do to cut consumption or increase recycling when consumption is hard to avoid.

  4. Brian:
    Giving waste plastic a value is so simple and so practicable that that the government of this Clever Country will surely ban the idea.

    John D.:
    We’ve been re-using onion bags, etc. for years. Single use food trays and plastic jars become multi-use and they’re great for all sorts of handyman stuff. (The word “handyman’ applies to both females and males).
    Please take care the insides of stainless straws are cleaned thoroughly after each use. Might buy some ourselves.

  5. Brian: The boss lady bought brushes for cleaning the inside of her new straws.
    Some plastic trays etc can be re-used as well as recycled. however, the number of things that come prepacked provides more trays etc than we can use.

  6. For part-time handy persons, the small plastic and cardboard containers for 12 screws, 4 nuts and bolts etc. in hardware supermarkets are annoying.

    A friend wanted six bolts; smallest packet had 30. He was sure he would never need the extra 24. That day, the packet of 60 was cheaper than the packet of 30. He bought the 30 and fumed.

    Agree strongly about reusing supermarket flimsy bags. Also onion bags, old coal briquette sacks (decades ago). Plastic drink bottles make good wasp traps in the garden. A plastic ice cream container with a tight lid, is cheaper than T***er ware; useful in the freezer or for other storage.

    The new activity around here is re-purposing wood, from pallets, left out near the footpaths by businesses which don’t return them. Can make shelving, outdoor furniture, boys toys, use as firewood etc.

  7. Brian,

    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, link here. There were 18 recommendations given in this report. Here’s the first 4:

    Recommendation 1
    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.

    Recommendation 2
    8.19 The committee recommends that the Australian Government show leadership through the urgent implementation of the 16 strategies established under the National Waste Policy.

    Recommendation 3
    8.20 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.

    Recommendation 4
    8.24 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.

    Check it out.

  8. Geoff, thanks for the link. I’ve updated the post. Recommendation 5 is also important:

    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.

    I’ve noted that they’ve recommended that the Australian Government prioritise waste reduction and recycling above waste-to-energy.

  9. Ambi: When we built our first house the boss lady built a lot of the furniture out of packing cases and made curtains from old sheets upgraded by her tie dyeing. We thought it was pretty good at the time. Put the mattress on the floor to save on the cost of a bed.
    My canoe was made out of a piece of waste iron sheeting.

  10. Good work, John and Lady Friend!

    When we married it was not unusual amongst our friends to buy secondhand furniture from Opp Shops. Your construction and curtain making efforts were very good.

    Online selling (eB) is enabling more folk to re-circulate goods now, large and small, that current Opp Shops simply don’t have the capacity to handle.

    Cheers

  11. When I were young, we lived in a structure known as “The Camp”:

    After my parent’s marriage they spent the first 11 years of their life there. I was 5 years old when we moved to the “Big House”.

    I do remember sleeping on a mattress made of bags and stuffed with straw, but I don’t think any of our other furniture was hand-made.

    And later PJs and shirts my mother made from a surplus parachute she bought after the war.

  12. Brian (Re: JULY 2, 2018 AT 10:38 PM):

    I’ve noted that they’ve recommended that the Australian Government prioritise waste reduction and recycling above waste-to-energy.

    Yes, I spotted that too.

    Perhaps you might like to add to your post Figure 2.1 – Waste hierarchy from the Senate final report (page 6)?

  13. Crikey

    We used to take empty cloth bags on Scout camps, palliasses?? the idea being you could part fill them with soft bracken fern as a mattress.

    Were never expected to doss down on ’em at ‘ome, like.
    This were after we moved out of the ditch, like. Soom booggers ‘ad it ‘arder then us.

    Brian, you come from sturdy stock.

  14. Brian, Geoff

    Recycling makes more thermodynamic sense than burning. A lower increase in entropy.

    Ambi von Boltzmann

    BTW, young BilB was spot on a few months ago, to point out that biodegradable paper bags would be the next advance in packaging, replacing plastic bags. I reckon he anticipated that recommendation to phase out single use plastic bags.

  15. There’s a good chance of a rise in rates of bacterial illness by useing multi-use shopping bags until folk get in the habit of sterilising them after every shopping trip.

  16. Brian
    That photo reminds me of the “ camps “ my Old Man grew up in. One of them on Blackall, charcoal floor and one bath drawn each day to be used by everyone ( 9 kids, 2 adults). The bath order was girls first then boys from cleanest to dirtiest.

    We really don’t appreciate how much better life is today.

  17. There’s a good chance of a rise in rates of bacterial illness by useing multi-use shopping bags until folk get in the habit of sterilising them after every shopping trip.

    There is no evidence to support this furphy (despite the opinion of theatworld renowned scientist, Andrew Bolt).

  18. Bolt said that exact statement, link please ?
    Maybe Hitler said something similar too.

    Actually, given my observations of habits I’ve witnessed, that’s a personally original thought I had.
    Happy to be wrong on the outcome though.

  19. So your parents sterilised their shopping bags after every use?
    What strange people. Nobody in our neighbourhood did, and none of us were ever struck down by e. coli (as threatened by Mr Bolt), probably because we didn’t carry faeces in our shopping bags.
    And I know it’s anecdata, but I’ve been carrying re-usable bags in my car for at least 20 years and they have never been sterilised (or even washed). No infection from them or poisoning from the outgassing caused by the heat in the car.
    Please stop being an alarmist.

  20. My parents era had far more bacterial food infection than today, look it up.
    And they aren’t filthy people that are ignorant of the need for hygiene in food transportation.

    Hhhhh, i tried to engage you in honest civil discourse after a while of ignoring you zoot, I was wrong to do so.

  21. Jump, my wife has been using the same bags for years, and we are still here.

    On bathing way back when, my main memory is from the ‘Big House’ where we had a proper enamel bath tub in a separate bathroom (luxury!). The practice was the whole family had a bath every Sunday morning before church, from youngest to oldest with my dad last. The bath started with about an inch and a half of warm water, and a bit of hot water was added after each bath.

    We usually had eight in the house, sometimes more.

    Otherwise, each night we washed arms and legs as far as you could roll them up behind the stove every night.

    In the ‘Camp’ there was a large galvanised iron round tub we’d set up behind a curtain near the stove.

  22. Geoff, I’ve posted the waste hierarchy. Here it is:

    It’s from a submission by the Waste Management Association of Australia.

  23. Jump at 7:30 pm

    Bolt said that exact statement, link please ?

    I didn’t say, or even imply, that you were quoting Bolt verbatim.

    Maybe Hitler said something similar too.

    How civil of you.

    Actually, given my observations of habits I’ve witnessed, that’s a personally original thought I had.

    Great! Share some of those observations with us since my experience (and apparently Brian’s) doesn’t support your hypothesis.

    Happy to be wrong on the outcome though.

    Apparently not, as demonstrated by your comment at 8:28 pm.

  24. If the phasing out of single use plastic bags will lead to “a real chance of bacterial illness”, South Australia should have seen an increase in these illnesses since 2009 when single use plastic bags were banned there.

    There has been no such increase..

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