Compared to Covid and climate change, the threat from plastics seems like a low rent version of planetary disaster. Can that plastic bottle, this fast food plastic knife and fork, and the plastic packaging wrapped around everything from supermarket fruit to toys to consumer durables really be omens of the apocalypse? Unfortunately, yes. The threat that plastics pose to the oceans alone is immense:
An estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans each year. That’s a garbage truck and a half of plastic every minute of every day.
Even at a lower global figure of eight million metric tons annually, the Norwegian government (a leading force in the fight against plastics pollution) estimates that roughly 15 tonnes of plastics are entering the oceans every minute. Historically, the UN estimates that just over three quarters of all plastic produced since 1950 have since become waste. Three quarters of it has been/is being discarded in landfills, or dumped in marine environments. The future prospects are equally grim:
If we delay dramatic action by just five years, an additional 80 million metric tons of plastic will end up in the ocean by 2040 (ie, 250 Empire State Buildings worth of trash). Without action, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight.
While fish and sea-birds choke on plastic, microplastics are present in the clothes we wear, the water we drink, and throughout the food chain. These particles are smaller than 4.75 millimetres in diameter, and an estimated 14 million tonnes of them are residing on the ocean floor. In 2018, research by the University of Newcastle, NSW, found that the average person is ingesting about five grams of microplastics every week, or the equivalent weight of eating a plastic credit card each week, all year round. Much of this intake comes from drinking water (tap or bottled) although microplastics are also significantly present in shellfish, beer and salt. As yet, the health outcomes of this intake are unknown. But eating and drinking plastic seems unlikely to be good for us, right?
Because fossil fuels are heavily used to create plastics and transport them to their points of sale, there are also climate change implications:
In 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals.
Soooo…. What is the planet doing about this plastics peril? If the world is to stand any chance of cutting back on plastics production at its source, there has to be an international response:
Until now, many efforts to tackle plastic pollution have focused narrowly on improving waste management or clean-ups. Others have focused only on bans and plastic reduction. None of these will work in isolation. We cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution, and neither can we simply reduce our way out of it.
At best, recycling accounts for only about 10% of the global annual production of plastic. Yet there’s a reason why recycling – and carbon offsets- are so very popular with politicians and corporate chieftains alike. Essentially, they’re forms of virtue signalling. They also displace anxiety and enable business-as-usual to continue, largely unaffected. (In similar fashion, governments lament child poverty while only tinkering with the economic structures that keep on generating it.)
Similarly, any attempt to clean up the plastic waste in oceans will be a hopeless, Sisyphean task unless the economic incentives that keep on generating the acres upon acres of marine and landfill waste can be attacked at source. That’s a lot easier said than done. Plastics are now embedded at every stage of the production chain. As with climate change, the problem of plastics pollution will require (a) the will to change the core structures of capitalism, and (b) the means of doing so.
In what will – hopefully- be the first baby steps along that path, an international plastics treaty is on the agenda of the United Nations Environment Assembly, due to take place between February 28 and March 2 in Nairobi, Kenya. Before they get to grips with what needs to be done, the nations meeting in Nairobi will first have to decide on how to talk about what needs to be done. A brief outline of how the UN has laid the groundwork for the Nairobi conference can be found here.
Like the COP26 talks on climate change, Nairobi may turn out to be mainly an exercise in good intentions and political posturing. There’s a fundamental conflict looming at the Nairobi conference. Namely: should the plastic treaty try to tackle head-on the full production cycle and global trade in plastic materials, or should it be mainly trying to organise a systematic clean- up of marine pollution? Rwanda and Peru have drafted a version on the full production cycle, and that draft has the backing of the European Union. Such a treaty would put limits on new (aka ‘virgin”) plastic production, and would attempt to control the toxic chemicals used in the production of plastic. Japan on the other hand, has a draft (backed by Ecuador) that’s focussed on more narrow strategies to do with the cleaning-up of marine waste.
Even if some agreement can be reached in both of those areas, the usual framework issues for any such treaty will also have to be hammered out in Nairobi and in subsequent years e.g. how to harmonise the standards to be applied, how to devise a workable timetable for compliance, how to create a coherent structure for global reporting, and how to monitor the environmental outcomes on which at least some consensus has been reached. Whatever Nairobi decides, the details will take years to finesse, and that’s even before the implementation period can start to be phased in. Plastic, meet elastic.
Meanwhile, the plastic waste will keep on piling up in landfills, rivers, lakes, and oceans, and more and more microplastics will be re-locating in our lungs and in our gastro-intestinal tracts. Bon appetit. There’s more on the Nairobi conference and on New Zealand’s Draft Plastics Action Plan below.
Although we seem unable to live without them, plastics continue to be a useful cultural symbol for everything that’s contrary to living nature. In the 1960s film The Graduate for instance, an older friend of the family took aside our idealistic young hero Benjamin (played by Dustin Hoffman)and offered him some important life advice in one word: “Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
Probably this was very sound business advice at the time, for a young go-getter. Yet when The Graduate came out in 1967, plastics were the fake, soul-deadening essence of everything the counter-culture despised and rejected. In the end though, the plastics have lasted longer than the hippies. The money being made from the production and trade of plastic materials underlines how difficult it is going to be to wean trade and industry away from this hugely profitable line of business. According to UN figures, the exports of primary, intermediate and final forms of plastics were worth more than US$1 trillion in 2018, or 5% of the total value of global trade.
These figures are set to increase sharply, as climate change drives the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, especially in traditional areas like transport and energy. In response, Big Oil is planning to vastly expand its investment in plastics.
With fuel demand expected to plummet as green energy markets continue to thrive, companies are betting on a boom in plastic demand. According to a report by Carbon Tracker, the British multinational BP had projected before the pandemic that by 2040, plastic would drive 95 per cent of the sector’s growth. The International Energy Agency has made a more conservative estimate placing this number at 45 per cent. Aligning themselves with these predictions, oil giants are planning to collectively pour $400bn into virgin plastic production within the next five years, potentially resulting in low prices and stranded assets, the report warns.
Not surprisingly, Big Oil is protecting these interests via heavy lobbying prior to Nairobi, much of it aimed at either derailing the treaty process entirely or (at least) watering down the texts.
“The biggest form of lobbying from the plastic industry is trying to frame the narrative. They claim that plastic is not a problem until it becomes waste and is littered in the environment. They’re not the ones responsible, consumers are,” says David Azoulay [of the Centre for International Environmental Law in Geneva]citing the example of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which gathers some of the biggest names of the industry, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, Total and Chevron Phillips Chemical. The initiative launched two years ago pledged to invest $1.5bn to support better waste management in developing countries, all the while funnelling a few hundred times more [funds] into new plastic production.
Handling Plastic Waste
In 2017, China’s decision to ban imports of plastic scrap imports altered the global rules for recycling plastics. For one thing, it led directly to changes to the Basel Convention on waste management that now enable poorer countries to refuse to accept shipments of low-quality plastic scrap difficult for them to recycle. Not before time, developed countries are now being forced to build their own waste recycling plants, rather than use the Third World as a plastics dumping ground.
In tandem, efforts are being made to reduce plastics production by changing the trade rules in favour of less damaging alternatives. China and Fiji, for example, have sought to initiate discussions within the WTO on how trade policy can help to reduce plastic pollution and promote a “circular plastics economy” ( defined below). To that end, the Geneva Solutions NGO has reported on attempts to lift the trade barriers on non-plastic substitutes such as jute, sisal, bamboo or hemp-based products. There are related initiatives to speed up the transfer to poorer countries of the technology involved in effective waste management. These global measures go hand in hand with countries agreeing to recycle, phase out or ban entirely single use plastic products like straws and grocery bags, along with some forms of plastic packaging.
Belatedly, the US decided only last November to attend the Nairobi conference at all. Part of its reason for doing so was because enough consumers worldwide are – finally – revolting against the environmental harm done by plastic. Therefore, some international brands have been trying to reduce their plastic footprint, despite the minor inefficiencies this causes within their supply chains. Yet beyond the level of the wealthy countries and corporates able to afford the gestures likely to enhance their brands, there are dozens of other countries that are active (by necessity) as importers of plastic products, and as exporters.
For such countries, plastic packaging is currently an essential way for them to find a place within the global trading chains, and to add value to their exports. How can the Nairobi conference hope to measure the trade-offs of a reduction in that reliance, let alone to monitor and police the situation? Moreover… Even with the best will in the world, it is inherently difficult to quantify the value and the volume of the plastics routinely embedded in other products, or used in their pre-packaging. Consumers in South Asia and Africa also happen to be highly intensive end users of plastic products and packaging. Changing those behaviours will not happen overnight.
All of which is going to make it difficult for the Nairobi conference to reach anything like a consensus on say, production cutbacks or the measures required to limit the proliferation of plastics. By comparison Japan’s draft initiative – the organising and the funding of marine clean- ups – may end up looking like an easier, feasible option. Besides, being seen to join the battle for cleaner oceans can only be good for many a lifestyle brand. Right now, we’re at the point where a plastic- littered beach is almost the equivalent of a polar bear on a melting iceberg. It offers an emotional opening for the marketing division.
The circular plastics economy
The road ahead from Nairobi may not consist solely of bans and deterrence. Much is already being made of the so-called “ circular plastics economy,” whereby plastic products are kept moving around the economy, and out of the environment for as long as possible. Essentially, a circular plastics economy envisages a shift away from a use/dispose approach to one based on returns of used receptacles and repairs. Supposedly, large numbers of new jobs might be generated in the course of creating and maintaining these virtuous plastic circles.
This isn’t entirely wishful thinking. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a leading US environmental NGO has estimated that as many as 700,000 jobs might be created in the US alone by a circular plastics economy. In November 2021, the Foundation reported on the progress that some major brands have made in reducing their dependency on plastics :
Global Commitment brands and retailers have collectively reduced their consumption of virgin plastic in packaging for the second year running, according to the data. This trajectory will be accelerated by new commitments that are set to see virgin plastic use fall by almost 20% in absolute terms by 2025 compared to 2018. Setting a reduction target has become mandatory for all the Global Commitment’s 63 brand and retail signatories in 2021. When combined with the impact of existing commitments, it is estimated that raising ambitions to this level will avoid 8 million tonnes of virgin plastic from being produced each year by 2025. That is equivalent to keeping 40 million barrels of oil in the ground.
Fine. That’s great. But just to keep that in perspective, the world is currently estimated to be consuming 97 million barrels of oil per day.
New Zealand’s position
As mentioned, the initial fault lines at Nairobi may be between (a) those nations seeking to define the problem (and feasible solutions) as being mainly to do with ocean pollution and clean-ups and (b) those nations intent on attacking the problem at the source of production. This production cycle effort might involve – for example – tariff and non-tariff barriers levied at national borders, consumer bans (e.g. on single-use plastic products) and the building of environmentally friendly forms of waste disposal infrastructure. Around the world at present, what isn’t recycled will be incinerated, or dumped in landfills or marine eco-systems. The planet’s atmosphere can’t handle any more large-scale burning of plastics.
In recent years, Norway, Rwanda, Peru, Kenya, Ecuador, Vietnam and Japan have spearheaded the international efforts to arrive at an international consensus on the need to limit plastics reduction. Norway’s international aid plan of assistance to help other countries deal with plastics pollution is worth reading, and can be found here. Norway at least, is putting its money where its mouth is:
The government of Norway will spend 1,6 billion NOK (approx. $US 200 million) on the development programme to combat marine litter and microplastics in the period 2019 to 2022.
Every year, every New Zealander sends on average some 60kg of plastic waste to landfills. In September 2021, the Environment Ministry put out a National Plastics Action Plan on which submissions closed a fortnight before Christmas.
As the Action Plan readily concedes ( p 17) New Zealand is well behind the global curve when it comes to the amount of waste that we generate, and in what we’re doing to tackle the environmental damage left on its wake:
Aotearoa is among the highest generators of waste per capita in the developed world. In 2018, we sent 3.7 million tonnes of waste to municipal landfills (approximately 750 kilograms per person); this is 49 per cent higher than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 538 kilograms per capita…
This is bad, and getting worse:
…[Our] long-term trend suggests the amount of waste we’re sending to landfill is increasing; between 2010 and 2019, total waste to municipal landfills increased by approximately 48 per cent. Much of what we send to landfills would be relatively easy to reuse or recycle – it still has value.
As the Draft Action Plan says ( p.31) “We don’t have adequate planning, regulatory tools, infrastructure and equipment, investment, research or community awareness.” To address these festering problems, central government is proposing a timeframe for change that includes improvements to kerbside recycling; the setting up of a payment scheme for plastic container recycling; major investment in sorting and recycling infrastructure ( see below) ; the promotion of compostable packaging; the bankrolling of market development assistance and targeted investment support for community and iwi based ventures in recycling and in the innovative end uses of such products; and lastly, it envisages a timetable for phasing out/reducing certain types of plastic items, from single use items to hard-to-recycle polymers.
Ambitiously, the Plan thinks it possible that by 2030, New Zealand will have undergone a major attitudinal change in the ways that society, business, and agriculture treat the ownership of plastics throughout the entire life cycle of such products. Depending on the type of plastic, the projected timetables will vary from the end point of late 2022 to early in 2025. But since submissions on the draft closed only as recently as December 10, 2021, no-one yet knows how much it will meet with the approval of business, farming, and other sectors.
We can only hope that these groups will not drag their feet in ways hostile to what New Zealand is trying to achieve in Nairobi. Yes, dealing with waste is an individual and community responsibility. Yet significant progress will not be possible unless business accepts that plastic waste is a design flaw in the production chain, and takes significant steps to help fix it.
Footnote: Substantively, the Ardern government has invested approximately $100 million in recycling infrastructure through the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, including optical sorters to enable better separation of plastics. In addition, the government has set up a $50m Plastics Innovation Fund to support projects that reimagine how we make, use and dispose of plastics. Presumably, our efforts at Nairobi will be to further whatever steps prove feasible when it comes to oceanic and terrestrial clean-ups, the reduction of plastic production, and the promotion of a circular plastics economy.
Music For a Plastic Beach
And lastly, there’s Snoop Dogg and Gorillaz….There’s not much happening on the lyrics front in this one ( Belly floppin, lockin,’ while I’m rockin’ in the bubble bath/And I’m just like math”) but hey, any excuse to put Snoop in a pirate captain’s outfit…