Far too little of the plastic which is discarded every day is recycled. This waste may take more than a century to decompose. Plastic thus contributes to the global environmental crisis which is destroying habitats and habitat. A considerable share of the pollution is toxic. Moreover, tiny particles contaminate the human food chain.
The waste problems have been escalating for decades. Approximately 7 billion of the 9.2 billion tons of plastic produced from 1950 to 2017 became waste, according to UNEP (UN Environment Program). About 300 million tons of additional garbage are generated every year, and UNEP reckons that only nine percent is recycled.
It is therefore good news that the annual assembly of UNEP decided to conclude within two years what is set to become the most significant multilateral deal on an ecological issue since the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015. An intergovernmental committee must now draft and ratify the intervening.
The Intervention will not ban plastics, but is supposed to consider the full life cycle of these commodities, starting from the production processes to the re-use of items, the recycling of waste and finally the disposal of what can no longer be used. Single-use plastics, commonly used for consumer-good packaging, are to be phased out. In the future, moreover, plastics should always be made with an eye to easy and effective recycling. The current practice is to design special varieties of plastics for many different specific purposes. More standardized products would facilitate more recycling.
The ultimate goal is to create a circular economy. According to UNEP estimates, a shift to such a system could reduce:
- the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80% by 2040,
- virgin plastic production by 55% and
- plastics-related greenhouse-gas emissions.
African dumping grounds
Plastic waste severely affects low-income countries. While they hardly produce plastic and do not use it much, they feel the impacts of pollution. The reason is that high-income countries export a huge share of their waste. After China stopped imports in 2017, African nations in particular have become dumping grounds.
According to Angelo Louw of Greenpeace Africa, plastic pollution is “a matter of life and death”. For example, floodings often result from heavy rains overcharging clogged drainage systems, and plastic waste contributes significantly to the problem. Another issue is the poisonous smoke that plastic fires emit. Moreover, toxic substances leak from disintegrating plastic.
For good reason, the recent UNEP resolution spells out that the international must take into account waste pickers. They are generally condemned to poverty, toiling in the informal sector of developing countries. They are doing important work, but have mostly been overlooked when governments and corporations tackled waste management.
Microplastics is another critical area that the target seeks to address. Microplastics are tiny bits or threads of plastic broken down overtime, often too small to be seen. Nowadays, these microplastics can be found in the oceans, in glacier ice, in soils and even in the food that people eat (see Sabine Balk on www.dandc.eu).