The Move Away from Plastic is Looking Just as Flimsy
Environmental Policy Brief #150 | By: Todd J. Broadman | November 24, 2022
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Photo taken from: Reuters / Pierre Albouy
We are a world addicted to plastic, the most perceivable, persistent and pervasive indicator of the Anthropocene. Plastics are produced from natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and each year more is produced. The current production rate is 400 million metric tons and is the source of 5% of CO2 emissions. By 2030 it will be 600 million metric tons, and 800 by 2040.
In addition to its contribution to greenhouse gas in its production, 91% of plastic is not recycled and much of it ends up in the ocean, about 200 million tons by current estimates; about 10 million tons are added each year with some of it flowing to one of five major gyres, ocean currents that gather marine garbage into their vortexes.
To limit plastics use, there was an agreement put in place in 2018: the EMF Global Commitment. Since its inception, global corporate brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Mars actually increased the amount of plastic they create since its launch in 2018. Companies like Nestlé point a finger at the lack of infrastructure as the main barrier for a plastic-free future. Nestlé is therefore actively advocating for a legally binding global plastics treaty and the prospect of new, harmonized national regulations.
95% of their packaging will be made for recycling by 2025; Coca-Cola, a major COP27 sponsor, has chimed-in saying that 100% of their packaging will be recyclable by 2025. Coca-Cola produces around 120 billion oil-based plastic bottles annually, according to anti-plastics campaigners Break Free from Plastics. Around 99% of the bottles are produced with fossil fuels and most are not recycled.
The ocean is showing signs of succumbing to toxic microplastics. By 2050, there could be more plastic in the oceans, by weight, than fish. Cleaning up what is there is proving a technical challenge. In fact, Katie Matthews, chief scientist at the nonprofit advocacy group Oceana, said that we need to face a reality in which “We can’t clean up our way out of plastic pollution.” Microplastics have made their way throughout the food chain from phytoplankton to zooplankton, in turn consumed by mollusks and small crustaceans like shrimp, and eventually all the way to the bodies of baleen and blue whales. Research shows that zooplankton actually graze directly on microplastics. So ubiquitous, there is a layer of sea called the plastisphere. On land, microplastics are found in human blood, feces, and in the placentas of unborn babies. Their impacts on health are yet to be determined and are under research.
91% of plastics end up either in landfills or in the water system. Over time, the plastic is broken down into pepper flake sizes, all-combined they tally up to half a million tons. Much of it not from obvious sources, these microplastics come from synthetic clothing, personal care products, tires, city dust, and from the breakdown of plastic debris. Sewage treatment plants are not equipped to filter them and they end up in the ocean. Studies of ocean sediments find that the amount of plastics found correlates with production increases over time.
Large scale ocean clean-up at this juncture will not take place. While cleanup technologies have a role to play in cleaning up ocean plastic, no single solution can effectively reduce ocean plastic. Just 1% of ocean plastic ends up in the large patches or gyres and the remainder is spread thin over thousands of square miles. What researchers agree on is that societies must undergo a fundamental and systemic change that includes the banning of single-use plastics, using compostable materials, and mandating recycling for everything else.
“We’re pretty close to it all being too late,” said Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and a former regional director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She references the large number of ethane cracking facilities, the latest in high technology plastics production. “If even a quarter of these ethane cracking facilities are built,” she says, “it’s locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from.”
Though spotty, governments around the world have been taking action. Many US cities, including New York and Chicago, ban or tax plastic bags. The European Union went as far as banning single-use plastics outright in June of 2021. The goal of the ban is to establish a circular economy that emphasizes the needs of reuse, repair, and recycle in the design and manufacturing of plastics and plastic products.
In March of 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) passed a resolution that mandated a treaty be created to address plastic pollution throughout the entire production cycle. The treaty will be legally binding – the equivalent of the Paris Accords on climate change. It is to include micro- and nanoplastics and associated toxic chemicals. Details are too finalized by 2024.
Like the Paris Agreement, targets were set and are not expected to be met in large part because economies have not taken the necessary steps to transition away from petroleum-based products and services.
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“In the context of a world trying to shift off of fossil fuels as an energy source,” says Steven Feit, a staff attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, “plastics are where [oil and gas companies] see the growth.”
While those efforts are taking shape, Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracking plant – a facility that turns ethane into ethylene, a building block for many kinds of plastic – is now operational in Pennsylvania. That plant alone has the capacity to produce up 1.6 million tons of plastic. This represents the “renaissance in U.S. plastics manufacturing,” whose output goes not only into packaging and single-use items such as cutlery, bottles, and bags, but also longer-lasting uses like construction materials and parts for cars and airplanes.
On a positive note, the use of virgin plastic by major brands is going down in favor of recycled material. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has spearheaded the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty which they say will feed into the U.N.’s upcoming treaty. Yet as industry is given a green light to continue with plastics production, there is a lack of investment in recycling infrastructure and flexible packaging. There are no plastics off-ramps that government is offering and the production of reusable plastic is actually falling year on year.
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