A future without plastic?

How great a problem is plastics pollution, how can it be reduced, and is a future without plastics possible or desirable?

Explainer Updated 12 October 2022 Published 26 August 2022 8 minute READ

A future entirely without plastic is neither realistic nor desirable. But the world should aim for a future of drastically reduced plastic consumption and eliminated plastic pollution.

This article explains the extent and nature of the plastic waste problem, and the political barriers to dealing with it.

Why is plastic use so widespread?

Plastic is used so commonly because it is tremendously versatile, more so than any other material. It can be used for almost any application imaginable. It offers enormous flexibility in colour, strength, shape, weight, and durability. It’s also very cheap, as it’s produced by the subsidized fossil fuel industry.

Plastic has many uses beyond the production of consumer goods like electronics, white goods, cars, and toys. It offers important hygiene applications through disposable garments like surgical gloves and face masks, or as packaging to protect fragile or perishable items such as food and medical supplies from contamination. It’s also used to improve safety, having applications in everything from bicycle helmets to electrical insulation.

However, plastic pollution is one of the gravest threats facing the world. According to the UN environment programme, plastics account for nearly 85% of marine pollution, with around 75-199 million tons in the ocean. And plastics production is expected to double over the next 20 years.

Plastic pollution presents a serious threat to biodiversity, particularly for marine life as it can be easily ingested thereby resulting in the choking, injuring, poisoning, or starving of marine animals.

Plastic waste can also block up natural waterways, polluting the water and disrupting the natural flow. And the scale of plastic pollution is expected to rise dramatically over the coming decades unless urgent global action is taken. If this trajectory continues, it is estimated there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 (by weight).

Why does plastic pollution contribute to climate change?

Plastic is not only an issue for marine and terrestrial biodiversity. It also directly contributes to climate change. The growth in plastics will result in substantial increases in global greenhouse gas emissions – from 1.7 Gt (billion tonnes) of CO₂-equivalent (CO₂e) in 2015, to 6.5 GtCO₂e by 2050. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that it will become the largest driver of oil demand, accounting for almost 50% of the growth in oil demand by 2050.

Open burning of plastic waste is also a major cause of toxic emissions. Open burning is common in many parts of the world where there is a lack of established waste collection and sorting services and is a major source of air pollution.

A recent study by the UN High Level Climate Champions and the Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that open burning of waste produces 11% of global black carbon emissions. Emissions from solid waste driven by open dumps and landfills account for about 5-12% of total global GHG emissions.

The world is a long way from where it needs to be. 15% of plastics are collected for recycling globally, with only 9% actually being recycled. Meanwhile, emissions of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems are projected to nearly triple by 2040 without meaningful action. Parts of the recycling industry, meanwhile, are associated with serious malpractice around labour abuse, child labour and corruption.

The chemistry around plastics has also grown more and more advanced, with thousands of plastic types emerging. These types create incredible complexity and have far outpaced governments’ attempts to develop effective recycling schemes.

Why is plastic waste still traded internationally?

Many countries are still exporting their plastic waste to developing countries. Europe has improved domestic waste collection practices over the years, but still exports waste to developing nations – an environmentally unsound practice.

China was a preferred destination for the shipment of plastics and other types of waste. However, in February 2017, China introduced restrictions on the types and quality of plastic waste it would accept, through its National Sword Initiative. This diverted the flow of low-quality plastics to other countries like India, Indonesia and Turkey. Even these countries are now introducing restrictions.

In 2021, strong limits on the export of plastics were introduced to the Basel Convention, a multilateral environmental agreement which regulated global trade in waste. Signatories to the convention now have the right to reject the import of plastic waste and return it to the exporting country.

These developments have strengthened the argument that developed nations must reduce their plastics production overall, better manage their plastic waste locally, and simplify the types of plastics being produced (so as to make them easier to recycle). 

Why is it important to reduce plastic waste?

Plastic waste is very harmful to human health and wildlife. There are over 700 species threatened directly by plastic pollution through ingestion. Seabirds, for example, consume the plastic waste, which fills up their stomachs, makes them unable to feed and causes them to starve to death.

Plastics break down into microplastics, which become magnets for contaminants in the oceans, creating a concentration of toxins. These are ingested by marine life and travel all the way up through the food chain. It’s thought that the average person consumes a credit card of plastic every week.

Microplastics can also get into human tissues through inhalation and absorption, with unknown but almost certainly bad consequences for human health. In middle- and low-income countries, where there are very low waste collection rates, plastic waste blocks waterways and provides havens for mosquitoes, contributing to flooding and disease.

Burning plastic waste creates air pollution, which affects local populations’ health, with children particularly affected. Every 30 seconds a person dies from a disease caused by mismanaged waste.

Plastic production and waste are very bad for the wider environment. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to approximately 2.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2040, or 19% of the global carbon budget.

Plastic waste is also expensive to manage. The estimated global cost of municipal solid waste management is set to increase from $38 billion in 2019 to $61 billion in 2040 without action to address the issue.

Article part 2

Is a world without plastic waste possible?

We will not create a world without plastics because it is such a good material. But we can aim for a future without plastic waste and pollution. A globally coordinated approach is vital to this effort.

The types of plastics currently being produced are incredibly complex, and often not used in an easily recyclable form.

It is crucial that the production of new plastics is reduced and refined. The types of plastics currently being produced are incredibly complex, and often not used in an easily recyclable form.

The world urgently needs to reduce the types of plastic from the thousands currently available to perhaps 10–20 key polymer types which can be easily identified, sorted and recycled.

There are vested interests opposed to this idea. Reducing new plastics production would reduce profits by primary producers in the fossil fuel industry. It would also impact the businesses who are dependent on a fast consumption business model, whether fast fashion, or on-the-go consumables like disposable cups.

The politics of plastic pollution

Human society has lost control over plastics – undermining the sustainable use of the material. Complex national politics and vested corporate interests prevent effective international collaboration to reduce marine plastic pollution. Fragmented environmental policies and the corporate lobbying power of ‘Big Plastic’ and global brands has stymied attempts to stem the tide of plastics entering the seas.

Can international law address the threat of plastic pollution?

There is increasing global recognition that plastics waste requires a global approach. Several conventions have tried to address the issue of marine debris, including the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). None of them have been able to curb the flow of plastic waste into the world’s oceans.

In February 2022 the UN Environment Assembly met in Nairobi, Kenya and agreed a set of resolutions to create a legally binding treaty to stop the global plastic pollution crisis.

The scope of the treaty will cover both the production of plastics as well as recycling, with specific targets to be agreed, recognizing the need to address plastic production as well as clean-up efforts.

The treaty may also help drive innovation for a safe and circular plastics economy and investment in reusable and recycled plastics as opposed to new plastics.

Most of all, a global treaty might help countries coordinate their plastic waste policies. This could end the current fragmented approach, which is inadequate for dealing with the international challenges involved in plastic waste management.

Can we ban plastics?

Some single-use plastics may need to be banned because they are simply not needed and cause pollution. But governments must be very careful about how they use legislation. Bans are a blunt instrument, and the emphasis should be on careful planning instead.

Efforts should be concentrated on global agreements to reduce the flow and variety of plastics and the use of disposable items of all kinds

It is enormously challenging task, but legislation to prohibit plastic use can be effective. In 2022 France introduced a law banning plastic packaging for large numbers of fruits and vegetables, ending the overwrapping of carrots, apples and bananas, and pledging to gradually phase out all single-use plastics by 2040.

Generally, efforts should be concentrated on global agreements to reduce the flow and variety of plastics and the use of disposable items of all kinds. Individual nations must also invest in local recycling operations. That would include industrial recycling plants in developed nations or informal litter pickers in developing nations who earn a living recovering recyclable plastics from landfill.

What can we do about all the existing plastic?

Very little can be done to address existing plastic pollution. All the plastics that have ever been produced are still in existence. They have been found at the top of Mount Everest and bottom of the Marianas Trench.

So vast is the extent of pollution that plastic waste is used as part of argument for an ‘Anthropocene’ epoch. That is the idea that human activity has had such significant impact on the Earth’s environment that it has created a new geological layer and should be referred to as a new geological period of time –like the early Cretaceous or the late Jurassic.

Efforts to tackle plastic waste in the oceans through initiatives like Ocean Cleanup, which intends to eliminate floating plastics, barely scratch the surface. The Pacific Garbage Patch, where efforts are focussed, contains around 80,000 tonnes of floating plastic. But the world produces 8 billion tonnes of plastic every year. The plastics are very dispersed through the oceans, and many have broken down into micro plastics.

Efforts to intercept plastic pollution at the mouths of major rivers in nations like China and India do have potential to capture far more plastic before it enters the ocean and breaks down.

20 million waste pickers do important work around the developing world, capturing plastics for recycling

Not all clean-up solutions will be high-tech. Countries in the developing world need to consider the role of the informal sector. There are 20 million waste pickers doing important work around the developing world, capturing valuable plastics for recycling. Supporting their work, recognizing their contribution, and including them in more formalized employment systems is central to efforts to manage waste. 

Nigeria has a serious plastics waste issue. Home to six of the 50 biggest rubbish tips in the world, river pollution is creating serious environmental and health issues in the country.

GIVO (Garbage In Value Out), a project supported by Chatham House, is delivering modular containers to support local processing of plastic waste. One centre can recycle 109,500 kilograms of plastic a year, with GIVO hoping to create 20,000 operational locations. Each centre will be a franchise operation run by women, empowering them to take ownership of their working lives.

Circular economy’s role in a plastic free future

The need to deal with plastic pollution is a key part of the argument for transitioning to a circular economy.

The circular economy means moving away from the world’s current economic model of ‘take, make, throw away’.

It means redesigning products to be more durable, reusable, repairable, and recyclable, and therefore kept in circulation for as long as possible. And it means changing the way we consume goods and services, and rethinking consumerism as a society.

A circular economy approach to plastics would see the world move away from single-use items towards reuse alternatives such as reusable coffee cup schemes or refill aisles in supermarkets.

It would also see plastic products redesigned with recycling in mind using individual polymer plastics and designing out toxic chemicals. The European Union (EU) is leading the way currently, setting an ambitious target to make all plastic packaging fully recyclable by 2030.