Cheap, solid, lightweight: plastic has changed how we consume and live. But, as practical as they may be, 50% of plastic objects are single-use and, in both the North and South, we are never truly rid of plastic waste.
Plastic is fantastic
Since the 1950s, the linear economy of “take-make-waste” has become commonplace. As a direct consequence of this new paradigm of production and consumption, the amount of non-recyclable plastic waste has become enormous. Only 9% of plastic is recycled today. The rest is incinerated or buried, or finishes on the seventh continent, the one floating in the Pacific Ocean, or is ingested by fish and other marine animals. For Erik Solheim, director of the United Nations Environment Programme, this is no longer tolerable: “we are throwing nearly a million tonnes of plastics into the oceans each month. We need to get that to zero.” The United Nations declared ending plastic pollution to be its top priority for the 2018 World Environment Day.
On beaches, in birds and even down to the air we breathe, the pollution of ecosystems and the environment by plastic waste is massive. Accelerated by the world’s growing population, the economic growth of emerging and developing countries is having the same effect. As their standards of living and levels of consumption increase, these countries are adopting the behavior of developed countries and consuming more and more plastic bottles and packaging. This demand from developing countries is a powerful driver in global plastic production: between 1990 and 2017, world demand increased 4.7% per year, four times faster than population growth.
Take action against plastic
Although the problem is a veritable mountain, awareness of the situation is quite high. More and more associations are regularly sounding the alarm about the overuse of plastic and its disappearance into nature. The media publicizes their actions and seizes on the subject to who prefer plastic over sustainable, recyclable packaging or containers like glass. Plastic waste has become a raw material for alarmed artists.
In developed countries, the trend toward zero waste among committed consumers as well as bulk sales has a bright future. In emerging and developing countries, there is great concern over accumulations of plastic, some of which even originates from elsewhere. But while “the West” is discovering waste sorting and re-using, residents of informal settlements have long known how to extend the life of materials, leading them to the creation of types of circular economies. By their very nature, informal waste collectors are often salvage dealers. While reuse is one way to give plastic a new life, recycling is another. That is what the two founders of Bin2Barrel think: Their company collects non-recyclable plastic waste and transforms it into fuel for cargo ships.
Only one solution: say no
Unfortunately, extending the life of plastic objects or more completely recycling them does not solve the problem. The best waste is that which is never created. Alternatives to plastic such as 100% biodegradable toothbrushes or fabric packaging are part of the solution for consumers the world over. Yet, as the Zero Waste association says repeatedly, it is only political will which can lead to implementing a wide-scale zero waste scenario. London has forbidden plastic straws, San Francisco has outright banned plastic bottles, India has committed to eliminating single-use plastic by 2022 and made this a great national cause. But there are still too few States and local governments making firm political commitments to rid the world of plastic and choosing the planet.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.