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Zero Waste: The Global Plastics Crisis

Plastic pollution is everywhere, it litters beaches, clogs up oceans, chokes marine life, is ingested by seabirds that then starve to death, and has even been discovered embedded in Arctic ice. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink (bottled and tap), and last year plastic was found in human stools for the first time. Friends of the Earth report that, “recent studies have revealed marine plastic pollution in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species examined.

According to the United Nations Environmental Agency the world produces around 300 million tons of plastic each year, half of which is single-use items, food packaging mainly. Of this colossal total a mere 14 percent is collected for recycling, and only 9 percent actually gets recycled; 12 percent is incinerated releasing highly poisonous fumes. The rest – nearly 80 percent – ends up in landfill, or worse still, is illegally dumped or thrown into the oceans; around eight million tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans annually, and while some of the environmental damage plastics cause is clear the full impact on marine and terrestrial ecosystems is not yet apparent.

Plastic recycling rates are appalling and considerably lower than other industrial materials; recycling of steel aluminum, copper and paper e.g., is estimated to be 50 percent, and plastic doesn’t disappear it just gets smaller and smaller, reducing over hundreds or even thousands of years into tiny micro-plastics and nano plastics.

A Wakeup Call

Levels of plastic waste vary from country to country; based on the 2018 report ‘Plastic Pollution’, daily per capita plastic waste in the United States, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, Kuwait and Guyana is over “ten times higher than across countries such as India, Tanzania, Mozambique and Bangladesh.”

Unsurprisingly, given its huge population (1.3 billion) and large manufacturing sector, China produces the greatest amount of plastic waste in the world, 59.8 million tons per year. However, at just .12 kilograms (4 ounces) per capita per day, this equates to one of the lowest levels of per person plastic waste in the world. The USA (population 327 million – 25% of China) is responsible for 37.83 million tons per year, or .34 kilograms (12 ounces) per person per day, three times that of China. America also produces “more than 275,000 tons of plastic litter at risk of entering rivers and oceans annually.” Germany produces 14.48 million tons per year, which at .46 kilograms (just over a pound) per person per day is one of the highest levels in the world, but unlike the US, Germany has on of the highest recycling rates in the world – recycling an estimated 48% (US 9%) of its plastic waste.

Since the 1980s recycling has been regarded as the environmentally responsible way to deal with the colossal levels of rubbish humanity produces. Throughout developed countries collecting recyclable household waste has become widespread, but for decades the laborious job of actually recycling it has been exported, mainly to China. But on 31st December 2018, China announced it would no longer be the world’s garbage tip, stating, the Financial Times reports, “that large amounts of the waste were ‘dirty’ or ‘hazardous’ and thus a threat to the environment.” The “National Sword” policy introduced by the Chinese government has resulted in China and Hong Kong reducing plastic waste imports from G7 countries, from 60% in the first half of 2017, to less than 10% for the same period in 2018. Overall recovered plastic imports to China have fallen by 99%.

China now only wants waste that does not cause pollution and meets certain cleanliness criteria. It’s a massive change to the recycling model that was long overdue and has caused chaos on many countries in the west, with large amounts of waste that should have been recycled being burnt or stockpiled. Desperate to find an alternative distant dumping ground to China, huge amounts of plastic waste have been shipped to south-east Asia. Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, where the largest quantity has gone; according to Greenpeace, imports of plastic waste to Malaysia increased from 168,500 tons in 2016 to 456,000 tons in the first six months of 2018, most of the rubbish coming from UK, Germany, Spain, France Australia and US.

The influx of such large quantities of toxic waste into these countries has led to contaminated water, crop death and respiratory illnesses. In May the Philippines forced Canada to take back “69 containers containing 1,500 tons of waste that had been exported in 2013 and 2014,” The Guardian reported. Other countries have responded in a similar way, with outrage: Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam have all introduced legislation to stop contaminated waste arriving in their ports. The Malaysian environment minister, Yeo Bee Yin, said, “Malaysia will not be the dumping ground of the world. We will send back [the waste] to the original countries.” Containers of illegal rubbish from Spain have been returned and a further 3,000 tons of illegally imported plastic waste from US, UK, Australia, France and Canada has also been shipped back.

The steps China has taken and the understandable anger of south-east Asian countries should serve as a wakeup call to western states, whose complacency and arrogance is fueling the environmental crisis. It is time that developed countries stopped exploiting poorer countries and accepted responsibility for their own plastic (and other) waste. Recycling needs to be recognized by western governments as an environmental necessity, a social imperative. As a business it is conditioned by business methods and motives; corruption and illegal practices abound, profit and costs become primary considerations and obstacles to environmental sanity; it is a great deal cheaper e.g., to incinerate plastic waste, or dump it in a forest or the oceans, than it is to recycle it, which is labor intensive.

In addition to recycling their own rubbish, developed nations, who are largely responsible for the environmental crisis, need to be cooperating with poorer countries, where most mismanagement of waste occurs. Helping them to design efficient waste management systems and financially supporting such schemes. If plastic pollution is to be reduced and effective recycling systems established, cooperation is essential.

How to shop: Zero waste

The power to bring about fundamental changes through responsible policymaking, investment in green technologies and education rests with governments; they have a duty to act urgently and radically.

Certain fundamental steps need to be taken: drastically reduce plastic use; eliminate single-use plastics altogether; recycle more – 9% is shameful. Invest in high-tech recycling facilities/waste management systems; ensure plastic products can be recycled; introduce national recycling standards (in the UK e.g., what local authorities will/will not accept varies) as well as worldwide agreements, with countries that lead the way on recycling, like Germany and Sweden being widely consulted.

In a positive move last year at the G7 summit, five countries –UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the EU – signed the Ocean Plastics Charter. They pledged “to increase plastic recycling by 50% and work towards 100% reusable, recyclable or recoverable plastics by 2030.” The USA and Japan did not sign. Plastic is the third largest manufacturing industry in America, producing 19.5% of the world’s plastic; President Trump didn’t even attend the G7 climate change and environment talks.

Individuals also have a crucial part to play in dealing with plastic waste and making politicians enact the radical changes required.

We can all reduce the amount of waste we produce; aim at Zero waste, embrace simpler, environmentally responsible lifestyles, shop in Zero waste shops, where customers take their own containers and refill them from large dispensers. Western supermarket chains are responsible for colossal amounts of plastic waste and need to radically change the way their products are designed, packaged and sold; in the UK, Waitrose, which has 5% market share, has introduced a pilot scheme in an Oxford branch where food dispensers are being trialed, encouraging customers to use refillable tubs and jars, their own or those freely provided by the shop.

It is a common-sense move that all supermarket chains in western countries need to adopt, it is the environmentally right way to shop and, logically, products not sold in plastic should be less expensive. Zero waste shopping should be the aim, plenty of customers want it, and the environment is demanding it. Plastic pollution is one aspect of the global environmental crisis, a crisis rooted in consumerism and a socio-economic system championed by developed nations, which promotes greed, selfishness and division. Radical systemic changes are required together with changes in lifestyle and values if the environmental vandalism is to come to an end and the planet is to be healed.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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