Plastic Pollution: The Circular Economy Myth

Hundreds of millions of tons more plastic pollutes our sea, ocean and land environment every year. Plastic pollution is everywhere, killing and endangering wildlife as well as being a serious threat to human health. Plastic particles have been found in soils and sediments, in animal carcasses and in the atmosphere. Plastic is found even in the most remote regions on Earth, from the ocean depths to the North and South Poles. Micro-plastic is also eaten by sea birds, fish, marine mammals and other sea creatures, where it enters the food chain. When we eat these animals we are also eating plastic. It is reported to be found in the blood of 80% of all people on Earth.

Image of plastic wrapped fruit and vegetables on a supermarket shelf - this single-use plastic wrapping ends up as plastic pollution Plastic wrapped fruit and vegetables on a supermarket shelf – this single-use plastic wrapping ends up as plastic pollution – it cannot be recycled

 

“In order to avoid a massive build-up of plastic in the environment, urgent coordinated global action is needed.” This is the conclusion reached by twentynine international scientists who participated in a study to evaluate different scenarios towards zero plastic pollution that was published in the Science Journal last July 2020.

The study is a comprehensive review of the plastic cycle on Earth based on modelling stocks and flows of municipal solid waste and micro-plastics through the global plastic system between 2016 and 2040. It found that even if the amount of plastic pollution was reduced by 80% by 2040, there would still be a massive build-up of plastic in the Earth’s natural ecosystems and landfills of another 710 million metric tons (MT). The team found that life on Earth stands between a rock and a hard place and that we need to seriously ramp up global efforts to cut plastic pollution.

We are being warned that if we do not collectively take urgent action an additional 1.3 billion metric tons of plastic will flow into the oceans, seas, rivers, lakes and land environment by 2040. It is only with immediate and drastic action that that figure could go down to down to 710 MT at best. Moreover to make matters worse many countries burn the plastic they cannot easily recycle – burnt plastic is estimated to reach 133 million metric tons of waste by 2040.

Image of plastic waste in a landfill - This ends up as plastic pollution Plastic waste in a landfill ends up as plastic pollution

 

Burning plastic releases dangerous toxins and chemicals into the air we breathe, such as carbon dioxide, hydrochloric acid, sulphur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates. Such emissions are known to be toxic to all biological life on Earth. In humans these emissions cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems thereby facilitating numerous other diseases and they are also potentially carcinogenic. All this apart from making an already critical global warming crisis, worse.

Plastic production, and especially that of single use plastic, is allowed to increase year on year. Moreover many countries around the world don’t have safe and effective waste separation, collection and disposal systems to deal with this volume of plastic waste. The expanding ‘throw-away’ culture across the globe has exacerbated the problem.

The proliferation of plastic waste is driven by the economic system favoured by policymakers and their supporting business lobbies that promotes economic growth. The acceleration in plastic production worldwide is a consequence of linear economic models that are designed in, and operate in, a vacuum. Any useful economic model should prioritise the wellbeing of all life on Earth and certainly operate within the life-sustaining limitations present in the biosphere from which it has sprung and in which it operates.

Image of plastic pollution in the ocean - macro-plastic and micro-plastic floating in the water column Plastic pollution in the ocean – macro-plastic and micro-plastic floating in the water column

 

Policymakers like to use the term ‘circular economy’ which in the case of plastic means that we would recycle most or all of it back into the production cycle. There are a couple of things wrong with this reasoning. Firstly, it is an accepted fact that plastic recycling is not economically viable. The second thing is that such a circular function would only achieve the desired result if operating within an economy that is sustainable. If we think we can operate an economic model with a circular production cycle that allows increasing economic growth year on year, thereby depleting more and more of the Earth’s resources, we are tragically fooling ourselves. This way of thinking has brought us to the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth and no amount of political spin will change the reality on the ground.

Co-author of the report, Dr James Palardy, said “This isn’t a problem (just) for the developing world, this is a problem for everyone to solve,” The research team found that there is no silver bullet solution to reducing global plastic pollution. A change is needed across the whole plastic supply chain to stop the spread of plastic pollution into the environment.

“There is a role for everybody and every sector. We can only solve this problem if everyone does what they need to do,” said lead researcher Winnie Lau.

Image of plastic pollution on the coast Plastic pollution on the coast

 

Gary Stokes, director of operations at OceansAsia said that what is needed is to turn off the plastic source. “You go into a bathroom and the bath is overflowing, do you grab a mop or do you turn the tap off?” he said. “Beach clean-ups are like mopping up the floor while the tap is still on. As good as they are, you need to turn off the source.”

Turning off the tap means cutting to zero the importation of single use plastic by 2024, starting now. All packaging should be made of compostable material and bottles made of glass. This is what solutions sound like, all else is spin.

This article was published in the Times of Malta on the 22 September 2020

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