Plastic: Stop it at the Border

We are fascinated by plastic, its look and usefulness, and have totally ignored the collateral damage it causes to our health and in the environment. The extent of the damage being caused to our life supporting Earth is mind blowing and this has finally reached global public awareness. Of the 6.3bn tonnes of plastic produced since 1950 half was produced in the past 16 years. In the face of all this the Petrochemical industry has plans to produce another 6.3bn tonnes of plastic in the next 20 years. By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the seas and oceans. This is due to plastic overproduction and the still unchecked spilling of plastic waste into the seas and oceans from landfills, ships and rivers. Fish populations are decreasing at an alarming rate also because of industrial scale overfishing, ocean acidification and global warming, the latter two caused by carbon emissions. As if this was not enough studies have shown that plastic is also present throughout the human food chain and is found in our blood, digestive system and faeces.

More and more people are separating plastic for recycling but this is not really working through for two reasons. Firstly, the industry is producing single use and other plastics at increasing rates. Plastic is being forced upon us by the industry replacing all other packaging and used in anything and everything from the absurd singly wrapped toothpicks to food and medicinal products that previously used to be contained in glass bottles. Secondly, the majority of plastic waste is ending up in landfills, creating plastic waste mountains in the developing countries, finding its way back into the environment and oceans. Moreover two thirds of plastic waste separated at source for recycling is not clean enough for further processing and ends up at the landfill or is incinerated anyway.

Landfilled plastic continues to survive fragmenting to ever smaller bits. It pollutes by leaching and combustion or is carried away by rain run-off into the rivers, seas and oceans. Incineration produces greenhouse gas emissions that feed into the global warming crisis.

We really do need to understand that everything on this Earth is interconnected. When humanity introduces a damaging substance into the biosphere it never really goes away. The biosphere is a closed system and it does come back to bite us or future generations.

Recycling is also expensive and has low or no margins. It is never going to attract the private sector investment it would need. The EU has been quite effective at getting its citizens to separate waste. On the other hand the EU has failed abysmally in providing the recycling facilities to deal with all the separated waste. Rather than this it has been exporting 60% of its plastic waste to China. China has in 2017 closed its doors to the importation of waste from other countries.

The European and North American waste producing countries then moved their export of trash to other Asian and African countries with far less stringent environmental laws such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. This shameless greenwashing strategy worked for a short while but is now also fast unravelling as the trash receiving countries have woken up to the severe health and environmental risk that being the world’s trash can brings with it. In an ironic twist they are also being largely blamed as the primary cause of the plastic pollution of the oceans. The fact is that they have been totally overrun by shiploads of European and North American plastic rubbish, rubbish that has often been dumped or discarded, only to end up as marine litter. Some reports estimate that the world’s oceans are littered with 5.25tn plastic items.

Malaysia is set to return 3,000 tonnes of non-recyclable or low quality plastic to the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia and other countries. Malaysia is now refusing to be the dumping ground for the rest of the world. “Garbage is traded under the pretext of recycling,” Malaysian environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said. “Malaysians are forced to suffer poor air quality due to open burning of plastics which leads to health hazard, polluted rivers, illegal landfills and a host of other related problems.”

Kuala Lumpur banned imports of contaminated plastic waste in October 2018, and returned five containers of waste to Spain in May 2019. The Philippines has in May shipped 69 containers of rotting waste received from Canada more than five years ago back where it came from as nations in the region increasingly reject serving as dumpsites for wealthier states.

The United Nations are backing a proposed amendment, supported by 187 countries, to the international regulations governing the movement of hazardous waste. This will mean that such exports will require prior consent from the governments of the destination countries. Tellingly the USA has opted out of this new accord. Do not rest easy this is just the beginning.

This pushback by Asian and African countries is right and overdue. If we are to solve the global plastic waste problem each country needs to take responsibility for its own waste. If you cannot dispose of it in an ecologically sensible way, don’t import the products. It does not really get simpler than that, no ifs and no buts. This is common sense.

Some countries and cities have taken unilateral limited actions to counter the plastics scourge, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco, Taiwan, India, France, Vanuatu, Taiwan, Zimbabwe, Australia and New Delhi, Malibu, Seattle and Montreal mainly focussed on plastic bags, straws, cutlery, stirrers and the like.

The EU will be restricting the following plastic items by 2021: single-use plastic cutlery (forks, knives, spoons and chopsticks), single-use plastic plates, plastic straws, cotton bud sticks made of plastic, plastic balloon sticks, oxo-degradable plastics and food containers and expanded polystyrene cups. The EU also plans to collect 90% of plastic bottles by 2029 and greater application of the polluter pays principle. Far too little, and certainly too late.

It is high time that as consumers we demand that the unnecessary and toxic plastic be no longer produced. We must insist that all packaging must be 100% reusable or compostable. We must make it clear that we want the phasing out of the production of single use plastic within the next 3 years – this means cutting plastic production by 50%. This is not a demand problem. This is a supply problem. The Petrochemical industry owns all the plastic manufacturing plants and are forecasting an increase of 40% in the production of plastic for the next decade. Banning single plastic items will not work. For every one plastic item that is banned another hundred new ones are produced using plastic, rather than other materials.

All countries have failed to successfully manage their plastic waste. When it comes to plastic there is only one ‘R’ and that is Reduce. All persons who are in a position to affect outcomes must decide on which side they stand. We all should be mindful that we have sown the wind, and if we do not hastily do enough of the right things to fix this, we shall without a doubt reap the whirlwind.

Article published in the Times of Malta, 2nd August 2019