Plastic pollution is a major environmental challenge, and managing its waste is a big problem. And this was before the COVID crisis led to an upsurge in production of non-recyclable plastics such as masks, medical equipment, and gloves!
Plastic pollution in water is a deadly threat to marine animals and birds. On land, plastic waste litters shorelines, and plastic particles present in drinking water and in the air are a threat to human health. Plastic waste is omnipresent; it forms what is called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” And while undoubtedly an industrial success, plastic has over the long term contributed to economic crisis, especially in the tourism sector.
How to deal with the plastic crisis?
Plastic is an ideal material in that it is cheap, versatile, and reliable. Its production intensified in the 1950s, along with the boom in petrochemicals. It is estimated that between now and 2050 the plastics industry will release 2 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, far more than does the transportation industry. Also, plastic is produced essentially from petrochemicals, proof that the planet is dependent on extremely polluting raw materials.
But now governments are more aware of and concerned by the ecological, economic, and societal challenges of the plastic crisis and are trying to address the problem. The European Commission, for example, has adopted a draft directive prohibiting the sale of single-use plastic products in 2021. This directive also sets a target for Member States to collect 90% of their plastic bottles by 2029. Meanwhile, in Africa, 34 countries have taken the decision to ban plastic bags by prohibiting their manufacture and distribution.
At the international level, the member countries of the United Nations Environment Assembly signed an agreement in 2018 on reducing the use of plastic: four of its resolutions are devoted to marine and microplastic waste. That same year, the G7 drew up a charter on plastics in the oceans. While all this represents noteworthy and significant progress, there will be no real impact without international consensus.
How the North manages its plastic waste: shipment to the South!
According to Glen Wright, a Research Fellow in International Ocean Governance at IDDRI, “the international framework is quite fragmented and not well adapted to plastic pollution of the oceans.” Indeed, there is no instrument that provides a comprehensive response to the problem of plastic pollution. Neither the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution nor the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal can provide a solution.
This fragmented response is aggravated by the fact that the waste-treatment economy is under pressure. To deal with their insufficient recycling capabilities, some industrialized countries in the North had been massively exporting their unwanted plastic waste, especially to Asia. But China and its neighbors, seeking to fight plastic pollution and unable to accommodate the growing volume of waste, have restricted waste imports, leaving global recycling in complete chaos. This embargo is above all designed to prohibit the entry of certain types of waste into their territories.
Meanwhile, in many developing countries, public or illegal landfills are sprouting up everywhere because governments lack budgets to implement effective formal collection and recycling systems. In fact, humanity produces more plastic waste than the recycling industry can handle.
COVID-19: a before and after that goes from bad to worse
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950s, 79% has already become waste, and only 9% of total waste produced to date has been recycled—because not all plastics are recyclable.
This situation has been further aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. Packaging, outer protective wrapping, masks, visors, barriers for shopkeepers, and plexiglass have all been mass-produced as means of protection against the virus. Wrongly perceived by many as unavoidable, this strong comeback of single-use disposable plastic is a big step backwards in the fight against plastic pollution. Indeed, scientists fear there will be a drastic increase in plastic pollution, which is already considered by the UNEP as one of the greatest environmental scourges of our time.
But while the COVID-19 health crisis is making plastic pollution worse, it is also leading to renewed awareness about the issue. A number of solutions have been recommended, such as a switch from polluting manufacturing materials to recyclable materials, use of reusable masks and gloves, and selective sorting. Setting up long-term circular economic networks would also be a sustainable response, but this requires involvement by all parties concerned: public, private, local, and international.