Plastic poison spreads unchecked

Companies need to do more than lip service

Environment

January 19, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Plastic poison spreads unchecked

Plastic has proven to be almost indestructible and it can last for an eternity, poisoning everything that it comes in contact with (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

Household brands are the biggest plastic polluters in the world.

For the third year in a row, a survey by anti-plastics NGOs has found that Coca-Cola is the top global plastic polluter, while others in the top 10 include equally famous names such as PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelez International and Procter & Gamble. Though many of the leading brands have joined an alliance for recycling plastics and cutting down use of virgin plastic, so far this commitment has remained on paper. According to a recent report by environmental activist group Greenpeace, signatories to the New Plastic Economy Global Commitment have only reduced their use of virgin plastic by only 0.1 pc from 2018 to 2019.

Though a vast range of businesses have affirmed their commitment to cut plastic usage, but production and consumption of plastics, notably virgin plastics globally has continued to rise every single year since mass commercial production began about six decades ago. In 2019, the production of plastics totaled around 368 million metric tonnes worldwide. Though China accounted for 30 pc of the global production, the world’s biggest, both Europe and United States also continue to be major producers and consumers of plastics. Also, while China may be the largest producer, it exports a sizeable amount of its production to EU and the US. In the last decade, Chinese plastic exports rose from USD 14.4 billion in 2009 to USD 48.3 billion last year.

Despite its versatility, easy availability, low price and long life, plastic is one of the most harmful products in the world. Right from production, it harms the environment. The production of plastic is quite energy intensive, requiring 62 to 108 mega joules of energy per kilogram based on U.S. efficiency averages. Producing silicon can require up to 235 mega joules per kilogram of material.

Once produced, plastic has proven to be almost indestructible and it can last for an eternity, poisoning everything that it comes in contact with.

Plenty of problems with plastics

Disposal of plastics or its recycling is an extremely cumbersome, challenging and expensive. This is the main reason behind the low rates of recycling. The collection of plastics itself is a mammoth task for the companies involved. Every day, billions of plastic products with distinctly different characteristics and qualities are thrown as waste products. Collection and sorting of these products as well as transporting them to the recycling centres is a very time consuming and expensive process. The process of recycling itself is highly energy intensive and polluting. In addition, production of virgin plastic is much cheaper. This has also led to shut down of key plastic recycling plants such as the largest one in California that folded up last year.

The expense and headaches involved in recycling has meant that most of the developed countries end up shipping millions of tonnes of plastic wastes to the poorer nations, notably in Asia and Africa. Here, almost 15 million rag pickers pluck the most important pieces of plastic from the heaps of imported waste to earn their livelihood. While the useful and recyclable plastic ends up at the recycling plants, but the rest is simply burnt, emitting tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. The smoke also contains several carcinogenic chemicals.

Moreover, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic through its lifecycle are immense. A recent report said that in 2019, pollution from global plastic production and incineration was equal to emissions by 189 coal-fired power plants. It goes on to say that by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions from plastic could make up as much as 13 pc of the entire remaining carbon emissions budget. If the plastic industry continues uninterrupted, it could account for 20 pc of the total global oil consumption by midcentury.

Plastics that aren’t burned or processed are piled high or buried, contaminating previously arable soils and waterways. Plastics pose the biggest threat to the global biodiversity, especially the marine and aquatic life. According to various studies, in 2020 up to 34 million tonnes of plastic waste will end up in the world’s lakes, rivers and oceans and this could rise to 90 million tonnes in 10 years from now. The plastic waste production this year is certain to have dramatically increased due to the various sanitizing devices such as PPE kits, sanitizer bottles and face shields etc.

Unkept promises

In 2015, the global community had agreed that even 8 million tonnes of plastic waste in oceans was far too much. However, on the ground there is little happening to cut the volume of plastic waste in the oceans. A recent report in the journal Science says that even if all the countries manage to meet their targets for cutting plastic wastes, by 2030, the world will still be adding up to 53 million tonnes of plastic waste into the aquatic ecosystems.

Already, microplastics have become all pervasive, having penetrated every nook and corner of the global biosphere, from the deepest depths of the oceans to nursing mothers’ milk. This puts the focus on the current targets and the lethargic implementation of these targets by the governments as well as companies involved in production or consumption of plastics. It is time to integrate the cost of recycling and safe disposal of all kinds of plastic products into the cost of manufacturing plastics as well as for the companies like Coca Cola that end up consuming millions of tonnes of plastics each year, generating billions of dollars in profits for their shareholders and billions of pieces of plastics for the world’s waste dump yards.

Perhaps, only when the companies and the consumers start to feel the economic pinch of plastics will they finally feel the need to either consume plastic in a more responsible manner or even give it up altogether and go in for innovative, biodegradable and ecofriendly replacement for plastics.

A small movement towards this has already begun with use of biodegradable straws and cutlery, as well as a ban imposed by many governments on manufacture of single use plastic, but this is just too microscopic and the need of the hour is a massive switch to such options immediately. Only a strict government action, as has been seen in the battle against Covid-19. But somehow, it looks unlikely that any government or even most humans take plastic poison as seriously as they have taken Covid-19.

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