The Plastic Pollution Crisis. Why it matters and how we can solve it
These days my social media feed is flooded with news about plastic pollution. And heartbreaking pictures of dead whales and other animals found with bellies full of trash. I have personally seen the blight of litter in remote mountains, rivers and seas. Sadly, much of it originates in processed food and beverages, where I worked for 30 years. Now that I run an environmental solutions platform, I have developed a broader understanding of the global fight against plastic pollution.
We can no longer ignore this problem and its impact on the planet. The good news is - governments, corporations and civic society are taking note. More and more countries are imposing bans or restrictions on “single-use plastics”. Meanwhile, big corporations are announcing pledges to reduce, eliminate or recycle their plastic waste within a decade or less. Consumers are taking steps to reduce their plastic waste footprint, switching to reusable bags, refillable bottles and buying more responsibly.
So, does this mean the problem will be solved soon? Unfortunately, not. Because most of the efforts today are making marginal impact at best, while the quantity of plastic production and waste continues to rise. In fact, there are unintended consequences of some well-meaning efforts. For example, banning plastics without planning for a viable alternative, or switching to certain “biodegradable” bioplastics could be worse for the environment, economy and consumers than the problem being solved.
So, what is the solution? To answer that, we must first dimensionalize the problem and appreciate the role of plastics in our lives.
Plastic Waste is a GLOBAL problem
According to estimates by Our World in Data, global production of plastics in 2015 was 407 million tons, of which over 150 million tons was discarded to landfills or litter (what we refer to as plastic pollution). The bulk of plastic waste comes from single use packaging. Scientists have estimated that 8 million tons of plastic pollution enters the oceans annually, which is only 3.5% of the total waste. Interestingly, more than half the plastic waste in the oceans is actually discarded fishing nets and other marine sources of litter.
You may have heard that 90% of the plastic pollution entering the oceans emanates from 10 rivers, 9 of which are in Asia. In fact, those 9 rivers only contribute to 18% of ocean plastic waste, and less than 0.5% of total worldwide plastic waste. Unfortunately, it has propagated the myth that attempts to regulate plastic waste in the USA and Europe are misguided because they contribute marginally to the problem. The reality is that USA generates more plastic waste than any other country, only recycles 9% of it, and an unknown amount (currently guesstimated at 2%) ends up as land-based litter.
Another misconception is that most of the ocean plastic waste is floating in a massive “Gyre” (a place where ocean currents meet) in the Pacific Ocean. And that if we invest money to collect it, then the problem will be solved. Again, the reality is that a tiny fraction of the plastic that has entered the oceans is floating in the gyre, possibly less than 1%. Scientists and environmentalists are yet to conclusively prove where the rest of the “missing plastic” is hiding. According to industry experts, plastic biodegrades into CO2 and water within years, while environmentalists claim that it takes centuries. And both produce scientific evidence to back their claims.
What we do know is that plastic pollution is breaking down into tiny pieces called microplastics that are spreading throughout the planet, entering our water supplies, food chain and our bodies. The scary thing is that we do not know what the long-term health impact is on humans or on the biosphere. Although multiple researchers have failed to find conclusive evidence of harmfulness of ingested microplastics, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and an abundance of caution is advised.
However, if you want a nightmare scenario, one possibility is that it interferes with the photosynthetic ability of phytoplankton in the ocean. Why is that worrisome? Because they are estimated to produce 50–85% of our planet’s Oxygen, the element that keeps us all alive. That is why addressing plastic pollution is almost as urgent an imperative as climate change. But before we talk about solutions, I want to begin by acknowledging something potentially controversial.
Plastics are GOOD
Yes, I said it! And before you send me hate mail, please read on. Chances are that the phone or computer on which you are reading this article contains a lot of plastic (I use the term generically to include all kinds of polymers). The clothes you wear, the vehicles you travel in, most of the products that make modern life possible contain some form of plastics. Even plastic packaging, considered the biggest polluter, has made food and beverages available widely at affordable prices, with minimal wastage by reducing spoilage and extending shelf lives.
Plastic has become ubiquitous in our lives for a good reason. It is a lightweight, versatile, durable, inert, inexpensive and moldable material. It has a lower total environmental footprint than alternatives like wood, glass, metal or anything else. If we had to replace the world’s plastic production with functionally equivalent materials, that would mean millions of tons of more resources and the carbon footprint associated with it.
I disagree with environmental movements that demonize all plastics and often promote “plastic free” living. Even if that were possible, it would be disastrous for both the environment and the economy. Our entire way of living is made possible by this wonder material. We just need to use it wisely - reduce, reuse and recycle as much as we can.
Some Uses of Plastic are BAD
The problem we need to tackle is some “single-use” plastics, that are used for a few seconds or minutes, and then littered by consumers to persist in the environment for centuries. Changing the habits of billions of consumers will take generations, so we need more urgent solutions. Luckily, most single-use plastics can easily be replaced by reusable, refillable or environmentally friendlier alternatives that require minor sacrifices in convenience or price.
The most common example of single-use plastics is the plastic grocery bag. In the USA, I still see people taking 20–30 bags home only to discard them within minutes, when a reusable plastic (yes plastic, not cloth) bag can do the job at a lower total environmental footprint. Thankfully, in developed countries, most of the used bags find their way to a landfill. By contrast, in emerging markets, the landscape is littered with plastic bags that get stuck on trees, bushes, are chewed up by cattle, and eventually disintegrate into microplastics that contaminate the soil, water, air and food.
Disposable cutlery and tableware are examples of items that can also be replaced by reusable ones with the tiny extra effort of washing them. Unfortunately, each time I visit my neighborhood coffee shop, I get a disposable coffee cup instead of a ceramic one, even if I plan to consume it inside the store. Because it is cheaper for the store to use a disposable cup than to collect back and wash used coffee mugs.
People in supermarkets these days buy cases of single-use plastic bottled water to take home. Creating lots of plastic waste. But today, packaged bottled water can easily be replaced by affordable water filtration technology. And a reusable plastic water bottle can replace hundreds of plastic bottles over its lifetime. Good for the environment, lighter on the wallet and no different for health. But for most consumers the magic of marketing and convenience of a disposable package beats the sustainable choice. You can read more about this in my blog “Unbottling Water”.
Collectively, these uses of plastic are the main source of litter, pollution and microplastics in the environment. To combat this, activists are targeting multinational companies that are the biggest producers of single-use plastics. For example, my former employer, The Coca-Cola Company, has been accused of being the world’s biggest plastic polluter by an NGO. But manufacturers like Coke claim that they are simply responding to consumer demand. There is more than a grain of truth to that. Most consumers prefer affordable single-use products over the inconvenience of reusable items and refillable containers.
As an example, Coca-Cola has large manufacturing plants in India that produce returnable glass bottles. But fewer consumers are buying these packages because they are heavy, breakable and require a refundable deposit to takeaway. By comparison, the fastest growing package is the single-use plastic bottle, that combines portable convenience with lower cost. This is exactly why the returnable glass bottle stopped selling in the USA decades ago. If Coca-Cola stopped selling plastic bottles to protect the environment, and forced consumers to buy returnable glass, they would go out of business. Because competitors would win over their consumers with plastic bottles. This problem needs a systemic solution beyond just targeting individual companies.
The problem is ECONOMICS
The biggest strengths of plastic, its durability, economy and low weight, also cause its biggest problem — waste and pollution. This is because virgin plastic is so cheap that recycling is often uneconomical and consumers choose disposable plastics over other options. And that begins with the price of the raw material for plastic — crude oil. Climate activists are demanding a steep, global carbon tax on fossil fuels, which may impact this dynamic. But that is a politically and economically difficult choice. And the subject of a different blog.
Often the biggest sources of plastic pollution are communities that can afford single-use plastics but whose governments cannot afford to set up good waste management systems. But even in developed economies like the USA where I live, it is common to find plastic litter along roadsides, in waterways and on beaches. This is squarely a failure of civic sense and ignorance about the harmfulness of plastic waste to the environment and eventually to human health. And back to economics, it is because most waste plastic has little or no value.
The other economic challenge is the reverse logistics cost of bringing back to recycling centers small quantities of mixed plastic waste from small villages and remote communities. In many countries, there is no formal system of collecting and segregating waste even in big cities. Leaving the task of recovering recyclable materials in the hands of ragpickers, who live and work in abysmal conditions and earn a pittance compared to the value of service they provide society.
So, What is the SOLUTION?
When I tell people what I do for a living, I am often asked “what is the solution to the plastic pollution problem?” Or people proffer their opinions with proclamations like “ban all plastics” or “make these evil corporations clean up their act”. I wish it were as simple as that. Because I am not aware of any “silver bullet” solution, despite 2 years of global research. The correct questions to ask instead are
1. What is the best solution that addresses the problem of plastic pollution within the socio-economic-political context of each local community in the world?
2. Who is responsible, and who should bear the cost of each action, or pay the penalty for inaction?
These questions cannot be answered in a short blog like this. But our assessment is that the solution lies in the hands of all three stakeholders — Corporations, Consumers and Countries
All plastic on earth started in a factory owned by a business. And since they profit from the use of plastics, it is only fair that they should also play a role in finding a solution.
Recognizing this, many of the world’s biggest corporations have announced pledges to reduce or eliminate their plastic waste footprint, driven by organizations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But big goals and commitments are meaningless if not followed through with concrete action. And that will only happen through the daily actions of thousands of employees at all levels of the organization. Unfortunately, many corporations hold up a few volunteer activities and donations to NGOs as examples of actions they are taking to solve the problem. While some progressive companies are reconfiguring their entire supply chain, from raw material choices to post-consumer recovery and recycling efforts. No guesses which ones will be in a better position to deal with environmental activism and government regulations.
Our research over the past 2 years has uncovered hundreds of innovations in technologies and business models that can help reduce the plastic waste footprint of companies. Often the innovators are small entrepreneurs, who need patient capital and the scale of big corporations. Yet, they struggle to find investors or markets for their products and services. Sadly, most employees in big corporations are unaware of their existence. Platforms like ours are helping bridge that information gap, but a lot more needs to be done by corporations to meet their commitments.
The power to create a change lies in our hands as consumers and citizens. Here are 5 things we can do in our daily lives, beginning today:
1. Be the Change: Refuse, Reuse, Refill, Reduce, and Recycle in that order, every single time we are faced with a consumption choice involving single-use plastics
2. Spread the Word with your friends, families and communities, and participate in cleanup drives
3. Support responsible businesses with your shopping and investment choices, especially those that use recycled plastics in their packaging and products
4. Vote for Policies and Politicians that address this problem, especially through well designed taxes, regulations and container deposit laws
5. Make Responsible Choices in your workplace. You can find hundreds of ideas on our Ubuntoo website for free
A plethora of regulations, bans, taxes and restrictions on plastics and plastic waste exist around the world. And every month more and more countries are announcing measures to rein in plastic pollution. But government interventions should be carefully designed, resorting to bans only as a last resort, and using taxes only to level the playing field for the best market-based solution to emerge. Success of any taxes, regulations or bans will depend on good on-ground enforcement by the appropriate local authorities who will need to be well-trained and effectively supervised.
Governments need to establish baseline metrics of plastic pollution, and accurately measure the ongoing impact of their policies. There should be periodic reviews by cross-disciplinary committees comprising representatives from industry, government and civil society. And justifiable exemptions will need to be made, more details worked into laws, loopholes closed, and support provided to vulnerable sections of society whose livelihoods may be negatively impacted.
Unfortunately, in many countries, the implementation of government policies gets hampered by bad design, a fog of misinformation, battles between rival lobbies and poor execution. There are many case studies of successful government policies like in Norway and Germany, where over 90% of all plastic bottles are recycled or reused thanks to container deposit laws. There is a dire need for a global organization to help inform the debate through deep research, data and policy advocacy. The UN Environment Program and some NGOs are playing this role but need more funding to grow their impact globally.
There is HOPE
The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it. And once the world collectively agrees that a problem needs to be solved, then human ingenuity and market forces can drive transformative change. A case in point is the hole in the Ozone layer. This was a serious problem 40 years ago. Until all countries in the world pledged to eliminate ozone depleting emissions. Thanks to all the actions taken, the Ozone layer is on the road to a slow recovery, with expectations that it will return to 1980 levels by 2070.
Given the current momentum, I am confident that 10 years from now there will be a global consensus on how to solve plastic pollution. And by 2050 we will not have “more plastic than fish in the oceans” as predicted by a leading NGO.
Until then, we invite you to join us and other organizations that are building a worldwide community of environmental change makers.