All the plastic ever made, still exists – where does it go?


Stories on the environmental impact of plastics, particularly on the marine environment, have been all over the news, of late. Harrowing tales of the impacts on charismatic creatures like whales, sea turtles, seabirds, and even adorable seal pups are regularly published, and a recent BBC documentary showcased the scale of the problem. The attention has helped foster policy momentum, and 2018 has seen the launch of the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, with the aim that all plastics will be recyclable or compostable by 2030, as well as global environmental policy and action. Domestically there have been a range of initiatives, including the UK Plastics Pact, in which businesses, government and NGOs have agreed to a series of ambitious targets by 2025. At the same time, some organisations like the British Plastics Federation, a manufacturing trade body, have argued that plastics are not actually bad for the environment, and that banning single use plastics or requiring the use of alternative plastics could actually harm the environment and people (e.g. through additional carbon emissions). Marine plastics, they argue, are a problem with a foreign source, citing a statistic from a recent Ellen MacArthur Foundation report that 98% of this waste comes from outside the United States and Europe.

Ellen Macarthur Foundation infographic shows that US and Europe only contribute 2% of ocean leakage of plastic

So does this mean that all this action on plastics will have unintended consequences? And can we in Europe and America feel ethically superior, absolving ourselves of responsibility for dealing with this global environmental challenge? That would be really handy considering that plastic seems to be lurking everywhere, even in surprising places like tea bags, clothing and tyres. I covered these issues in a segment on a recent episode of Skeptics with a K, and we also discussed them on a plastics panel at the recent QED conference. But for those keen to do more reading, I am writing a 2-part blog post addressing two key questions: 1) who is responsible for this problem, and 2) what harm do plastics alternatives cause? Today I will focus on responsibility.

A sketch by @Kemp_Matt of the QED panel: Re-use of Refuse: the facts about single use plastics

A sketch by Matt Kemp of the QED panel: Re-use of Refuse: the facts about single use plastics

Whose leakage?

Most marine plastics pollution originates on land. Estimates of how much plastic waste is produced outside of the US and EU as a proportion vary, but it is true that most of the countries with mismanaged plastics waste are outside of these areas (although the US is #20 of the top 20). A paper in Science and research by the Ocean Conservancy found that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are dumping more plastic into oceans than the rest of the world combined (55-60%).  While that may seem to support the idea that we don’t have responsibility, these statistics hide a few important issues.

That number above is known as “leakage”, a term referring to unmanaged plastics waste that reaches the ocean. It would not differentiate between domestically generated waste and waste imported from other countries. In reality, those “leakage” numbers could also include US and EU waste. A recent article in Science Advances, states that OECD countries have been exporting 70% of their plastics waste to China, with an estimated 45% of all plastics recycling being imported by China since 1992. Not all of that gets recycled, and much of it actually contributes to that leakage. That’s because China is not just the top country for plastic recycling, but also top of the global list for mismanaging their plastic waste. But in 2017 they passed their “National Sword Policy”, which bans imports of plastics waste, as well as tightening up the rules on permissible levels of contamination in recycling imports. While it is too early for us to know the impact of this ban, it is reportedly causing waste to pile up in the US and so far it seems Europe and America are instead exporting waste to other countries with high leakage rates. It may be that this will lead to more innovation and better strategies to deal with waste within our own borders. But for now, when we refer to this waste as their leakage, we are neglecting the fact that we are partially responsible for it. This does not mean that we shouldn’t advocate (and support) improvements in waste management in countries with high levels of leakage, but it does suggest that we have an ethical obligation to act domestically as well.

Whose responsibility?

Responsibility for the plastics pollution problem is not just about leakage, but also about consumption, both historic and contemporary. The best estimate we have so far, from research in the journal Science Advances, is that only 9% of the plastics have been recycled since mass production began 60 years ago. Plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade, so that means all of the plastic that has been made still exists. Nearly all the plastics you have ever used still exist in some form, which is a sobering thought, really.

There is also a massive discrepancy between per capita plastic waste generation. The average European person produces 31 kg of plastic waste per year according to Eurostat [insert infographic]. This dwarfs plastic waste generation rates for the countries where leakage rates are high, but where consumption is low and per capita waste generation may be just 10% of the average American or European. As the infographic from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation earlier demonstrates, the US and Europe are home to the headquarters of the vast majority of companies producing consumer goods for which these plastics are made.

An infographic from Eurostat and statista charts shows that EU citizens generate between 30 and 39kg plastic waste per year in almost all EU countries

Ultimately, I think an adaptation of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle is relevant here. This principle is based on notions of fairness and has been used since the dawn of global climate change policy. It recognises that historic and cumulative emissions disproportionately came from a small handful of countries, acknowledges that the world’s most developed economies have more resources to combat climate change, and encourages the world’s poorest countries to focus first on poverty eradication.

Policy Solutions

When it comes to plastics, this doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything about the ongoing problems with leakage in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and we have already seen China and other countries taking action. Fostering circular economies in these countries can also bring benefits to per capita GDP and living conditions in those countries. This is where the “common” aspect of this principle comes in.

While in Asia the focus should be on improved waste management infrastructure and practices, in Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, the solutions will need to focused on reduced consumption and alternatives to conventional plastics. There is plenty of research on “willingness to pay” that suggests consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that are more sustainable or even pay a tax on single use plastics. In the UK, the Treasury found that there is high support for taxing single use plastics at the point of sale, and there are plans to complement tax reform with changes to manufacturing.

Bans of specific products such as straws are already happening and spreading across the globe. Bans have already been flagged as problematic for disabled people. We also need to be careful not to create a black market, as happened with plastic bags in Rwanda or in relation to other products, like incandescent bulbs. It’s important to point out that no one is actually calling for the ban of all plastics. One suggestion from a consortium of environmental groups on the Treasury’s consultation was that policy interventions be targeted according to a hierarchy considering the necessity of the product and the necessity of including plastic. Their categories were “pointless”, “replaceable”, “problem”, “harder to replace” and “essential”. There can also be exemption for certain uses and/or for certain groups.

Plastics are arguably among the most transformative innovations of the 20th century; and despite their potential ills, they have also made our lives better in many ways. They are also probably here to stay. The question now is how we reduce their use, reduce the harm caused by their production and disposal, provide viable alternatives, and ultimately transition to a circular economy. In my next blog post on the topic, I will turn to the question of alternatives and whether their use could have unintended consequences.

 

Dr Sarah Clement

Sarah is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning within the School of Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental governance, science-based policy, and nature-based solutions. She is particularly interested in how reforming policy and practice can enable better ecological, socio-economic, and democratic outcomes, particularly during periods of rapid environmental and social change.  Sarah has worked in the field of environmental science and policy for 16 years as an environmental consultant, researcher, and environmental policy advisor in Australia, the UK, and the USA. She is also on the board of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. She spends most of her spare time hiking in nature, travelling, lifting heavy things, adoring her cat, and documenting all of these in pictures. She tweets as @DrSarahClement, and posts said pictures on IG @umsfromumbridge.

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