If there is one topic which more and more people seem to agree on, it is the impending environmental doomsday we have walked ourselves into. The latest chapter of the doomsday series is our realisation that we are surrounded by a sea of plastic products and packaging. But how have we found ourselves in this situation?
Plastic was invented in the nineteenth century as a substitute for natural substances like rubber and ivory. Its purpose was to go beyond the limited availability of these natural materials by producing a cheap element which was infinitely available, light, malleable, durable and presented a series of advantages when used for packaging, like preserving the flavour and freshness of food and beverages. Since the 1950s and the new era of mass consumerism we have seen an incremental rise in products and packaging made from plastic appearing in shops and supermarket shelves.
But the proliferation of plastic has contributed to a significant increase in plastic pollution. A study published last year in Science Advances showed that since 1950, 8.3 bn metric tonnes of plastic have been produced of which 6.4 bn have become waste. From this waste, only 9% has been recycled and 12% incinerated, with the remaining 79% sitting in landfill and harming the environment. This study also shows that plastic production is rapidly accelerating, with half of all 8.3 bn tones of plastics being produced in the past 13 years. Some researchers predict that by 2050 there could be more plastics than fish in the ocean by weight.
Even though the UK is seen as a leader in recycling, with a reported 43.7% level of household waste recycled during 2016/2017, the numbers show that only a third of plastic packaging used in consumer products was recycled during 2016 and almost two-thirds sent to landfill or incinerated. To make things more interesting, the amount of waste sent abroad during 2017 to countries like China, Malaysia and Vietnam accounted for half of the packaging reported as recycled. These three countries have been identified by Science Magazine as in the top 10 ranking for plastic waste entering the ocean. Maybe as a result, China has recently banned the shipping of plastic waste to their shores and Vietnam seems to be following the same path with plans to stop issuing new licenses for the import of waste.
Fearing the earth will soon look like the set of a Mad Max movie, Governments are starting to put measures in place to try to stop this plastic tsunami. In January, the UK Government unveiled its 25 Year Environment Plan which focuses on plastic waste. Planned measures around it include a tax on single-use plastics, a ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds-– with consultations regarding this ban expected to be launched by the end of 2018 – and a resources and waste strategy to achieve the goal of zero avoidable waste by 2050.
This follows other measures implemented by the UK Government like the levy on plastic bags introduced in 2015 that helped cut their use by 85%. The 5p charge for plastic bags implemented in some shops has been so successful that UK Prime Minister, Theresa May has indicated that she is looking to raise this to 10p and to include all retail. The EU, too, has taken measures similar to the UK in what first Vice President, Frans Timmermans, described as a ‘race to the top’. The Circular Economy Plan launched by the European Commission in January includes a proposal to ban single-use plastic products where alternatives are readily available and affordable.
The question remains, will these measures result in significant improvement or will they amount to a band-aid on a gunshot wound? Although there seems to be support for these actions among consumers – with an unprecedented response to the consultations launched by the UK Government around the tax on single-use plastics proposal in which 130,000 individuals contributed – will there be sufficient behaviour change to create a meaningful impact? The recently introduced levy on soft drinks reveals that consumption of sugary drinks has not significantly decreased since the tax was put in place despite consumer support for extending the levy to other products.
The enduring challenge will not be the use of plastic itself but shifting the culture of disposable goods and the so-called throwaway society. Measures like bans on plastic straws and taxes on single-use plastics will only scratch the surface of the much bigger problems of over-consumerism, planned obsolescence, shipping of waste from richer to poorer nations (which often do not have waste-collection systems) and unnecessary packaging of products. Real change would only possible through an aligned shift in production, waste management systems and consumer behaviour.
These initiatives represent a right step on the path to addressing such a significant challenge and enabling collective awareness and action for a sustainable approach to tackling plastic pollution.
It will be a further challenge for businesses to navigate and adapt to the new regulatory requirements, but it will also represent an opportunity for companies to differentiate themselves as environmentally conscious, a factor that consumers are increasingly considering when faced with multiple choices at the supermarket.