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.