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Why the Plastic Crisis Matters

Photos of littered beaches and whales ingesting plastic bags have focused media and political attention on the problem of plastic waste. But the plastic crisis is not just about what ends up in the ocean; it is about whether we are capable of achieving a sustainable existence on this planet.

MANILA – Plastics have become a hot topic. News stories about plastic on beaches and in the oceans abound, and policymakers have begun to respond with bans or limitations on plastic bags and single-use plastic items.

But the plastics industry is fighting back, arguing that plastics are indispensable, and that the real problem is littering consumers and poor waste-management systems. According to the industry’s talking points, bedridden hospital patients and the elderly depend on bendy straws, and phasing out shrink-wrap on vegetables will lead to a food-spoilage disaster.

No one doubts that waste management in much of the developing world – and even in many richer countries – needs to be improved. Governments urgently need to invest in better waste-collection and processing systems. But the rich world also must stop exporting its worthless plastic waste to poor countries for so-called “recycling.” All too often, the trash that Europeans and Americans sort and separate into different bins ends up in containers bound for Southeast Asia, to be picked up by underpaid workers in hazardous conditions. Ultimately, much of it ends up in dumpsites or waterways anyway.

More to the point, the flood of plastic into our natural systems is linked directly to the other forces that are destroying our environment, decimating biodiversity, fueling climate change, and depleting natural resources. That is the main finding of the Plastic Atlas, recently published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Break Free From Plastic Movement.

As the Atlas – a compendium of facts, figures, and background information on the synthetic polymers that have become an integral part of our lives over the last 70 years – makes clear, the plastics industry has been selling us a false narrative. The plastics crisis is much more than a waste-management problem. The real story starts as soon as oil and gas are extracted from the ground, and continues long after plastic waste enters the ocean and other ecosystems. Not only is plastic production a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions; it also releases a wide range of other chemicals into the environment, many of which end up in our lungs and stomachs.

Thus, while efforts to tackle waste are important, they must not distract attention from the main problem: the world is producing far too much plastic in the first place. Between 1950 and 2017, around 9.2 billion tons of plastic were produced globally, which is equivalent to more than one ton per living person today. Worse, over half of that plastic has been churned out since 2000, and the rate of production continues to accelerate, with no slowdown in sight.

According to recent estimates, plastic production and incineration could emit 56 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050, accounting for 10-13% of the total carbon budget we can “spend” by mid-century under current emissions-reduction commitments. By the end of the century, plastic-related emissions could amount to half the total carbon budget.

The climate crisis and the plastics crisis are two sides of the same coin. To keep global warming within an acceptable range, we absolutely must reduce the amount of plastic we produce, consume, and discard. And no, this is not a problem that we can recycle our way out of. Less than 10% of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. In the case of the United States, under 10% of plastic waste is recycled; the rest is incinerated or dumped in landfills.

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While better waste-management and more recycling are both imperative, the only real, lasting solution is to produce less plastic in the first place. We must start by cutting down on the plastic packaging that accounts for 40% of all plastic waste. The first step is to phase out single-use items such as plastic grocery and garbage bags, cutlery, and, yes, those wonderful bendy straws.

Humankind must find ways to get by without laying waste to the planet. That means reducing, in absolute terms, the amount of material we use throughout the economy. It also means halting the development of petrochemical facilities that produce plastics and other highly polluting materials. More broadly, we must force manufacturers to change their distribution and delivery systems towards refillable and reusable systems, and to take responsibility for the damage their products cause.

Some of these measures are already being adopted. In Asia, entire cities are moving toward zero-waste solutions through decentralized community-led and centered initiatives, bans on single-use plastics, and lobbying against waste incineration. Many of the solutions remain to be discovered and developed; but Asia is proving to be the engine of change.

The movement for zero waste is growing at the global level. It is naming and shaming the corporations that churn out the most plastic. And it is pushing governments to ban fracking and drilling, mandate reduced production of plastic, and champion reuse and refill solutions.

If there is one thing that can stop the flood of plastic, it is greater accountability. And accountability, in turn, relies on good data and information. We must expose and publicize the truth about plastic, and counter the misleading narratives propagated by the plastics industry. The Plastic Atlas represents an opportunity to turn the page.