Plastic Trash Solution: Produce Less Plastic

If plastic production and plastic waste generation continue to grow at current rates, the annual mass of plastic trash ending up in the land environment, the lakes, rivers seas, oceans and landfills, has been projected to more than double by 2050. Moreover the cumulative mass of ocean plastic could increase tenfold from 2010 levels, by 2025.

Image of crude oil and plastic trash on the beach and in the ocean Plastic trash is produced from crude oil by the petrochemical industry – crude oil is a fossil fuel

 

“Up to 78% of the plastic pollution problem can be solved by 2040 using current knowledge and technologies and at a lower net cost for governments, when compared to the current ‘do nothing’ scenario. However, because of plastic’s long degradation time, even a 78% reduction from current business-as-usual pollution rates would still result in a massive accumulation of plastic waste in the environment as well as large quantities of toxic greenhouse gas emissions from plastic burning in landfills.” This is the conclusion reached by the international scientists who participated in a study to evaluate different scenarios towards zero plastic pollution that was published in the Science Journal last July. The study recommends the most aggressive intervention possible across the entire plastic cycle in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.

Previous studies have estimated that approximately 8 million metric tons (Mt) of macro-plastic and 1.5 Mt of primary micro-plastic enter the ocean annually. Micro-plastics are less than 5mm in size and macro-plastics are larger than that. Three quarters of all the garbage in the ocean is plastic. By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the world’s oceans.

Despite the magnitude of these flows, the efficacy and economic costs of solutions proposed to solve the plastic waste problem remain unknown and a global evidence-based strategy, that includes practical and measurable interventions aimed at reducing plastic pollution, does not yet exist.

Primary micro-plastics are tiny particles of plastic designed to be that size for commercial use, such as in cosmetics or the microfibers shed from clothing and other textiles. Secondary micro-plastics are particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles or fishing nets. This breakdown is caused by exposure to the elements, like the sun’s radiation and ocean waves.

Image of a plastic manufacturing plant - This is where the plastic trash problem starts Plastic manufacturing plant – This is where the plastic trash problem starts

 

Micro-plastics are also increasingly found in the human food system. Their impacts on human health are difficult to assert and require further research. Again, policymakers ignore this threat altogether.

Plastic being manufactured is increasingly made from composite materials, which means more than one type of plastic. The complex composition of multi-material plastics limits the ability to sort and reprocess, decreasing further the economic attractiveness of recycling. The diversity of polymer types, surface contamination and the thin composition of huge volumes of plastic trash, such as plastic packing, wrapping and bags, make it impossible to recycle it.

Mismanaged plastic trash in dumpsites that is released into the environment presents a range of risks to human and ecological health. Substantial quantities of toxic, greenhouse gasses will continue to be emitted into the environment as plastic trash is openly burned in landfills. Even in the best of possible scenarios approximately 250 Mt of waste plastic would accumulate in open dumpsites from 2016 to 2040 and remains a potential source of environmental pollution.

There is overwhelming evidence that plastic is negatively affecting the health of wildlife and in most cases it is deadly. Many hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and seabirds are killed each year after ingesting or getting entangled in plastic. Plastic is a contributor to the dramatic loss of biodiversity on Earth. Nearly 700 marine species and over 50 freshwater species are known to have ingested or become entangled in plastic. Marine wildlife and seabirds cannot discriminate between plastic garbage and the food items that they would normally find in the oceans and seas. We also know that plastic is ingested by a wide range of land animals.

Image of plastic trash on a beach Plastic trash on a beach

 

There are five marine species directly impacted by plastic pollution: In 2018 scientists examined more than one hundred sea turtles and plastic was found in every one of them; More than fifty species of fish ingest plastic debris; Seals get easily caught in plastic packing and rubber bands; Plastic pollution leads to the death of one million seabirds every year; Whales have been found dead with 40 kilograms of plastic in their stomach. These are just five of eight hundred species affected by marine debris.

The study highlights a couple of exceptionally important points. One being that notwithstanding the obvious harm that plastic pollution causes to the our environment, our health and wildlife, neither the petrochemical industry nor governments have shown any interest in quantifying the cost of plastic pollution to the global or national economies and to our wellbeing. The other is that whenever the problem of plastic pollution is discussed in official fora it is always framed as a consumer behaviour issue or a matter of improving efficiency in the plastic cycle through technological innovation.

The truth reflects an entirely different situation. The fossil fuel petrochemical Industry is deliberately flooding the market with plastic. From domestic appliances to clothing and toys; from car parts to food containers, bottles and packaging, plastic is all we find to buy.

The arguments used by plastic producers and certain elements of the media are deceitfully misleading. What we need is less plastic, not more technology. Plastic pollution has, since the 1950s, been a production problem. The producer is the polluter. Plastic manufacturing is out of control and desperately needs to be cut down to size.

This article was published in the Times of Malta of the 22nd October 2020

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