Why it’s so hard to fix the world’s plastics crisis

Campaigners urge shift from clean-up and recycling to reduction and re-use to counter explosion of plastic waste

A plastic picker at the Suwung landfill in Bali, 2019
Plastic waste is set to almost triple globally by 2060
(Image credit: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Plastics have been described as a “climate killer”, with new research warning that the amount of plastic particles in the world’s oceans could more than double by 2040.

As the true scale of the problem becomes clear, researchers have called for a dramatic change in strategy from policymakers, shifting focus from clean-up and recycling to reduction and re-use.

But with the amount of plastic waste set to almost triple globally by 2060, will this be enough to avert a growing crisis and save the planet?

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Where does the main problem lie?

“Fossil fuels are the raw ingredient for the vast majority of plastics, which have a heavy carbon footprint from manufacturing through to disposal,” said CNN.

According to a 2021 report by Beyond Plastics, if the industry were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. The US plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of planet-warming CO2 emissions each year, the same amount as 116 coal-fired power plants or 50 million cars, said CNN in a separate report.

Judith Enck, a former US Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and now president of the campaign group Beyond Plastics, has called plastics “a climate killer”.

Marine plastic is seen as the primary environmental concern. The world’s biggest area of accumulated ocean plastic, dubbed “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, is located in the northern Pacific Ocean and estimated to consist of roughly 79,000 tonnes covering more than 610,000 square miles (1.6m sq km).

Yet these huge floating plastic islands are just the most high-profile examples of a much wider and more worrying phenomenon. New peer-reviewed research released this month in the journal PLOS One revealed that more than 170 trillion plastic particles weighing roughly 2 million metric tons are currently afloat in the world’s oceans. This represents “exponential growth” since 2005, said the report, and, more worryingly, could nearly triple by 2040 if no action is taken.

Is recycling the answer?

In total the world creates about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, said the United Nations Environment Programme, around 85% of which ends up in landfills.

Only around 9% of plastic globally is recycled, with this figure dropping in 2021 to just 5% in the United States – by far the world’s biggest plastics polluter – according to Greenpeace.

“Promises by major plastics producers like Nestle and Danone to promote recycling and include more recycled plastic in their containers have been mostly broken,” said The Business Standard, while the plastics lobby and many supermarkets “avoid this responsibility by lobbying against deposit return schemes that include plastic bottles”.

A deep dive into the numbers of plastic bottles produced each year shows how stark the problem is. A million plastic bottles of water are sold around the world every minute, with the bottled water industry generating roughly 600 billion plastic bottles and containers in 2021 – most of which end up in landfills.

“The waste pile is so gargantuan that it would be enough to fill a line of 40-ton trucks stretching from New York to Bangkok every year,” said CNN.

So what is the solution?

The 5 Gyres Institute, which produced the new research published by PLOS One, has warned that the situation is now so extreme policymakers should stop solely focusing on clean-up and recycling.

The institute’s co-founder Dr Marcus Erikson told Forbes that clean-up programmes aimed at addressing the waste problem are futile if businesses continue to produce plastic at the current rate and that the main problem remains the economics of recycling plastic and recycled products.

Instead, said the magazine, policymakers “should put far greater emphasis on reuse and tackling the problem at source”.

UN member states adopted a resolution to end plastic pollution last year and are scheduled to meet again this spring with the aim of developing a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, “but how that plays out remains to be seen”, said Quartz.

“With drastic policy needed for reduction and reuse instead of recycling, the responsibility may shift from consumers to producers,” added the news site, while “environmental activists hope to see a global treaty that will address the full life cycle of plastic, from extraction and manufacturing to its end of life”.

Ultimately, Jacqueline Savitz, chief policy officer for the non-profit conservation organisation Oceana, told CNN: “Consumers need to continue urging major corporations to provide plastic-free solutions and help support refill and reuse programs to encourage society to shy away from plastic use and stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”

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