Plastics have become a hot topic. News stories about plastic on beaches and in the oceans abound, and policymakers have begun to respond with bans or limitations on single-use plastic items.
But the plastics industry is fighting back, arguing that plastics are indispensable, and that the real problem is littering consumers and poor waste-management systems. According to the industry, bedridden hospital patients and the elderly depend on bendy straws, and phasing out shrink-wrap on vegetables will lead to food spoilage.
No one doubts that waste management needs to be improved. Governments urgently need to invest in better waste-collection and processing systems. And the rich world must stop exporting its plastic waste to poor countries for so-called recycling. All too often, the trash that Europeans and Americans separate ends up in containers bound for Southeast Asia, to be picked up by underpaid workers in hazardous conditions. Much of it ends up in dumpsites or waterways anyway.
The flood of plastic into our natural systems is linked directly to the other forces that are destroying our environment, decimating biodiversity, fueling climate change and depleting natural resources.
The plastics industry has been selling us a false narrative: the plastics crisis is much more than a waste-management problem. The real story starts as soon as oil and gas are extracted from the ground, and continues long after plastic waste enters the ocean and other ecosystems. Not only is plastic production a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions, it also releases a wide range of other chemicals, many of which end up in our lungs and stomachs.
Thus, although efforts to tackle waste are important, they must not distract attention from the main problem: the world is producing far too much plastic in the first place. Between 1950 and 2017, about 9.2-billion tons of plastic were produced globally. Worse, more than half of that plastic has been churned out since 2000, and the rate of production continues to accelerate.
According to recent estimates, plastic production and incineration could emit 56-billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent by 2050, accounting for 10% to 13% of the total carbon budget we can “spend” by mid-century under current emissions-reduction commitments.
To keep global warming within an acceptable range, we absolutely must reduce the amount of plastic we produce, consume and discard. This is not a problem that we can recycle our way out of. Less than 10% of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. In the case of the United States, less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled; the rest is incinerated or dumped in landfills.
Better waste-management and more recycling are both imperative but the only real, lasting solution is to produce less plastic. We must start by cutting down on the plastic packaging, which accounts for 40% of all plastic waste.
Humankind must find ways to get by without laying waste to the planet. That means reducing, in absolute terms, the amount of material we use throughout the economy. It also means halting the development of petrochemical facilities that produce plastics and other highly polluting materials. More broadly, we must force manufacturers to change their distribution and delivery systems, and to take responsibility for the damage their products cause.
Some of these measures are already being adopted. In Asia, entire cities are moving toward zero-waste solutions through decentralised, community-led initiatives, bans on single-use plastics, and lobbying against waste incineration. Many of the solutions remain to be discovered and developed, but Asia is proving to be the engine of change.
The movement for zero waste is growing at the global level. It is naming and shaming the corporations that churn out the most plastic. And it is pushing governments to ban fracking and drilling, mandate reduced production of plastic, and champion reuse and refill solutions.
If there is one thing that can stop the flood of plastic, it is greater accountability. And accountability, in turn, relies on good data and information. We must expose and publicise the truth about plastic, and counter the misleading narratives propagated by the plastics industry. — Project Syndicate
Froilan Grate is executive director of Gaia Asia Pacific in Manila. Lili Fuhr is head of the international environmental policy division of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.