30 May 2018

Can we really put an end to plastic waste?

Around the world, measures are being introduced to reduce the amount of plastic we manufacture and discard. While these efforts may be laudable, will they actually signal the end of plastic waste?

This Northern Gannet carrying plastic netting in its beak is part of a pervasive problem © Cor Fikkert
This Northern Gannet carrying plastic netting in its beak is part of a pervasive problem © Cor Fikkert
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

The statistics are jarring. Eight million tons of plastic waste enters the ocean each year. Seventy percent of trash in the sea is plastic. It has reached every part of the marine environment, from the ocean’s surface to the very bottom of the world’s deepest trench. Unfortunately, the tide shows no sign of turning. The amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is expected to triple in a decade.

No less shocking is what these statistics mean for marine life. A recent study showed that roughly 90 percent of seabirds ingest plastic. Heart-wrenchingly, many adult birds actually regurgitate the debris, meaning they pass it along to their chicks when feeding them. “I will readily admit to being reduced to tears more than once watching […] the majestic Wandering Albatross chick killed by a plastic toothpick,” Stephanie Winnard, BirdLife International’s Marine Project Manager, wrote in a recent article.

Fortunately, the past decade has seen substantial efforts to try to curb plastic waste. Starting in the early 2000s, countries began taxing single-use plastic bags, or even banning them altogether. Currently, more than 30 nations -- 20 of which are on the African continent -- ban plastic bags in some form, while another 30 have introduced some type of tax or levy.

And the ban seems to be spreading beyond plastic bags. From Zimbabwe’s 2017 ban on expanded polystyrene containers; to the European Union’s recent proposal to ban single-use plastics, countries around the world are trying to reduce plastic waste.

“I think it’s just a really fabulous set of initiatives” says Dr. Kate O’Neill, a Professor of Environmental Science at U.C. Berkeley. “Hopefully it’s serving to reduce plastic pollution, as well as maintaining customer and consumer awareness of this issue.”

While these efforts to cut plastic waste may be encouraging, how effective will they actually be? In the past, regulatory measures have had positive impacts on the environment. Perhaps the most famous case is in 1987, when the signing of the Montreal Protocol effectively banned chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were causing a hole in the ozone layer. Since the ban, the hole has not only stopped growing, it is actually shrinking.

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Bans on single-use plastics, however, could be far more complicated. For example, if people turn to other types of disposable carriers, such as paper bags, which require more energy to both make and transport, it won’t help with conservation. Additionally, in 2008 the UK Environment Agency found that canvas bags, presumably great for the earth, actually had the potential to impact global warming far more severely than plastic. Even plastic-like materials that are ostensibly biodegradable or compostable have their problems.

“We say let’s ban plastic. What do we replace it with?” says Dr. Trevor Zink, a faculty advisor at the Institute for Business, Ethics and Sustainability at Loyola Marymount University. “You always have to ask what happens instead.”

This question of what happens instead also applies to recycling. Outside of banning single-use plastic, the past few years have seen efforts to try to increase the amount of plastic that is recyclable, and the number of plastics that incorporate recycled materials. This approach, though, has its drawbacks.

Recycled products are only beneficial to the environment if they replace the manufacture of new products. In a recent paper, Zink and Dr. Roland Geyer of U.C. Santa Barbara argue that recycled plastics do not actually act as substitutes for new materials, and therefore do not have a net benefit for the environment.


90% of seabirds like this Laysan Albatross have consumed plastic © Forest and Kim Starr


“I think recycling is even more of a problem for a slightly insidious reason,” says Zink. “We all know that we should recycle and that single-use plastics are bad. We can buy plastic bottles because we assuage our guilt by knowing recycling is an option. If recycling wasn’t an option, people might make different consumption choices.”

O’Neill, however, argues against this line of thought. “I know there’s one side of the debate that says if we have recycling we’re going to keep using plastic. But there’s so much plastic floating around that isn’t biodegradable and isn’t degrading, I think we should be beefing up the capacity to actually be recycling that.”

For O’Neill, the solution to this problem lies in increasing the amount of recyclable plastic, and ensuring that plastic that could be recycled doesn’t end up as waste. In 2015 in Britain for example, 1.5 million tons of plastic was potentially recyclable, yet only 0.5 million tons actually was recycled. “The investment needs to come from governments,” O’Neill said. “Things aren’t going to be recycled just because they’re recyclable. You need to have that critical component - which is, there needs to be a market for it.”

For others, recycling and bans are just a drop in the ocean. “To truly address plastic waste, we have to address waste management in developing countries” says Professor Chris Cheeseman, who lectures on Materials Resources at Imperial College London.

A report put out in 2015 by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and the Environment supports Cheeseman’s assessment. According to the report, five countries in the Asian-Pacific region — China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand — account for 60 percent of plastic waste in the world. The report suggested that targeted interventions, including collection services, incineration and recycling in those five countries could reduce global plastic-waste leakage by around 45 percent.


“By the time the plastic bottle is made it's too late. There's nothing we can do except keep it in landfill rather than on a beach.”


However, environmental activists from the region pushed back against this characterization. In an open letter, they criticized the report. Their argument? That the proposed waste-management solutions were oppositional to incentives to make products easier to recycle or compost.

With much of the discourse happening at a national level, perhaps you could be forgiven for thinking that you, as an individual, can do little to turn the tide. But you’d be mistaken. While there may be debate over recycling, bans, or waste collection methods, one thing the experts agree on is that if we want to decrease plastic waste, consumers need to lessen their consumption.

“By the time the plastic bottle is made it’s too late,” Zink said. “There’s nothing we can try to do except keep it in a landfill rather than a beach. So the real story here is about changes in consumption rather than changes in dealing with waste.”

“I think about the time I ordered a dozen bottles of iced coffee from Amazon and they each arrived pretty much in their own bag,” O’Neill said. “There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of plastic reduction in the packaging industry, and maybe consumers need to deal with the trade-off of having the occasional broken bottle.”

Ultimately, if we want to stop seabirds from ingesting plastic, if we want to prevent tons of plastic from entering the ocean, the answer may lie not in trying to ban plastic, or to recycle it, but to simply use less of it altogether. This, however, is easier said than done.

“The problem is not going to go away very easily,” Cheeseman said. “Plastics are long-lived, durable materials. That’s the good thing about them and that’s the bad thing about them.”

BirdLife International is a conservation organization working to protect birds and habitats around the world. If you would like to support our work, why not make a donation today?


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