Plastics scourge should be treated as seriously as COVID-19

Plastics scourge should be treated as seriously as COVID-19

Short Url
Plastic waste is piled outside an illegal recycling factory in Jenjarom, Kuala Langat, Malaysia, October 14, 2018. (Reuters)

For the third year in a row, a survey by anti-plastic nongovernmental organizations has found that Coca-Cola is the top global plastic polluter, while others in the top 10 include equally famous names such as PepsiCo, Nestle, Unilever, Mondelez International, and Procter & Gamble. Though many of the leading brands have joined an alliance for recycling plastics and cutting down on the use of virgin plastic, so far this commitment has remained on paper. According to a recent report by environmental activist group Greenpeace, signatories to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment only reduced their use of virgin plastic by 0.1 percent from 2018 to 2019.
Though a vast range of businesses have affirmed their commitment to cutting their plastic usage, the global production and consumption of plastics, notably virgin plastics, has continued to rise every single year since mass commercial production began about six decades ago. In 2019, the production of plastics worldwide totaled about 368 million metric tons. Though China accounted for a world-leading 30 percent of the production, both Europe and the US also continue to be major producers and consumers of plastics. Also, while China may be the largest producer, it exports a sizable amount to the EU and US. Chinese plastic exports rose from $14.4 billion in 2009 to $48.3 billion in 2019.
Despite its versatility, easy availability, low price and long life, plastic is one of the most harmful products in the world. Right from production, it harms the environment. The production of plastic is quite energy intensive, requiring 62 to 108 megajoules of energy per kilogram based on US efficiency averages. And, once produced, plastic has proven to be almost indestructible, while poisoning everything that comes into contact with it.
The disposal or recycling of plastic is extremely cumbersome, challenging and expensive. This is the main reason for the low rates of recycling. The collection itself is a mammoth task for the companies involved. Every day, billions of plastic products with distinctly different characteristics and qualities are thrown away as waste products. The collection, sorting and transportation of these products are very time-consuming and expensive processes. And the process of recycling itself is highly energy intensive and polluting. In addition, the production of virgin plastic is much cheaper. This has led to the shutdown of key plastic recycling plants, such as the largest one in California, which closed in 2019.
The expense and headaches involved in recycling means that most developed countries end up shipping millions of tons of plastic waste to poorer nations, notably in Asia and Africa. Here, almost 15 million ragpickers pluck the most valuable pieces of plastic from the heaps of imported waste to earn their livelihood. While the useful and recyclable plastic ends up at recycling plants, the rest is simply burnt, emitting many tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The smoke also contains several carcinogenic chemicals.
Moreover, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic through its lifecycle are immense. A recent report said that, in 2019, the pollution from global plastic production and incineration was equal to the emissions of 189 coal-fired power plants. It went on to say that, by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could make up as much as 13 percent of the entire remaining carbon emissions budget. And if the plastic industry continues unimpeded, it could account for 20 percent of the total global oil consumption by the middle of this century.
Plastics that aren’t burned or processed are piled high or buried, contaminating previously arable land and waterways. They also pose the biggest threat to global biodiversity, especially to aquatic life. According to various studies, in 2020 up to 34 million tons of plastic waste are likely to have ended up in the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans, and this could rise to 90 million tons 10 years from now. The plastic waste produced last year is certain to have dramatically increased from 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic-related growth in demand for various sanitizing devices, such as personal protective equipment, sanitizer bottles and face shields.

It is time to integrate the cost of recycling and the safe disposal of plastic products into the cost of manufacturing them.

Ranvir S. Nayar

In 2015, the global community agreed that even 8 million tons of plastic waste in oceans was far too much. However, on the ground there is little happening to cut the volume. A recent report in the journal Science stated that, even if all countries manage to meet their targets for cutting plastic waste, by 2030 the world will still be adding up to 53 million tons of plastic waste into aquatic ecosystems.
Microplastics have already become pervasive, having penetrated every nook and corner of the global biosphere, from the deepest depths of the oceans to nursing mothers’ milk. This puts the focus on the current targets and the lethargic implementation of these targets by governments and the companies involved in the production or consumption of plastics. It is time to integrate the cost of recycling and the safe disposal of all kinds of plastic products into the cost of manufacturing them, as well as for companies like Coca-Cola, which consume millions of tons of plastic each year while generating billions of dollars in profits for their shareholders.
Perhaps only when companies and consumers start to feel the economic pinch of plastic will they finally feel the need to either consume it in a more responsible manner or even give it up altogether and switch to more innovative, biodegradable and eco-friendly replacements.
A small movement toward this goal has already begun with the use of biodegradable straws and cutlery, as well as the bans imposed by many governments on the manufacture of single-use plastics. But this is just too microscopic and the need of the hour is a massive switch to such options immediately. Only strict government action, as has been seen in the battle against the coronavirus, will be enough. But somehow it looks unlikely that any government or even most humans will take plastic poisoning as seriously as they have taken this pandemic.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view