Can you imagine what 93 basketballs weigh? Or what the equivalent amount of plastic looks like?
That was the average amount produced per person in 2016, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
It’s packed full of eye-watering statistics and predictions – including that if business continues as usual, by 2030 the amount of plastic pollution on the planet will double, with oceans the most visibly affected. So what can we learn and how can we turn that into an opportunity?
Taming the beast
While we all know plastic pollution is ballooning, most of us are less well versed on what can be done to tame it. That’s where the WWF’s new report, Solving Plastic Pollution Through Accountability, is helpful, offering five key areas where real efforts could reap results.
The report chimes with the World Economic Forum’s work on the New Plastics Economy, which advocates shifting from a take-make-dispose model to a circular economy in which nothing that’s made becomes waste.
“Plastic has become ubiquitous in nature creating a serious challenge for the
natural world, society and the global economy,” the WWF said. “Without systemic change to the plastic life cycle, the current plastic pollution crisis risks spiralling out of control.”
Here are the suggestions it makes for real progress:
Cutting or limiting production is the first step. Underscoring how out of control the issue is, the report says the production of virgin plastic has increased 200-fold since 1950, and has grown at a rate of 4% a year since 2000.
As plastic risks becoming a dirty word, it’s worth remembering its benefits are unmatched by other materials. It is light, easily shaped and inexpensive as well as guarding what’s inside it against contamination. Far from all plastics being the enemy, it’s single-use ones, like plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, bottles and most food packaging, that pose the greatest challenge.
Currently, 40% of plastic is single-use and has a lifespan of one year, and it’s cutting back in this area that the report says will really make a difference, recommending a wholesale change in design so the majority can be reused or recycled.
3. Waste collection
Low collection rates and poor sorting is the problem here, and one that varies greatly from country to country. Industry and policy together could make a difference here. The report says mismanaged plastic waste is a “critical concern” because it is more likely to become pollution than waste managed through a controlled waste treatment facility.
“Failure to properly sort or dispose of plastic leads to waste being discarded directly into landfills or dumped into nature,” the report said. “The world’s inability to manage plastic waste results in one-third of plastic, 100 million metric tons of plastic waste, becoming land or marine pollution.”
Not enough plastic is recycled, the report says, with most treated by landfilling, incineration or dumping. In 2016, less than 20% of plastic waste was recycled, it said, because the process is unprofitable and expensive compared to other treatments. Incineration capacity in Asia is predicted to grow by more than 7% a year until 2023.
“Recycling operating costs are prohibitively high due to high collection and separation costs, and a limited supply of recyclable plastic,” it said. “Collecting and sorting is a time consuming and labour-intensive process due to the high levels of mixed and contaminated plastic waste.”
All this means carbon dioxide emissions from plastic waste management could triple by 2030, while burning plastics creates other pollutants.
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5. Secondary markets
Current secondary markets for plastics aren’t working as well as they could, according to the report. New incentives to improve the costs, technical capabilities, and quality of secondary materials would help resolve this, it says, and the first step would be making it more expensive to discharge plastic into nature than to manage it to the end-of-life stage. Measures should be put in place to ensure the global price of plastic reflects its full life cycle cost to nature and society.
“Since these economics are true for all actors in many locations around the world, the current plastics system is locked into polluting the planet,” the report said. “Due to its lower quality, recycled plastic has more limited reuse applications, reducing its demand, its price, and therefore the revenues of recycling companies.”
So could these five steps make a difference? WWF thinks so, saying that reducing plastic consumption, coupled with growing secondary plastic material production, could halve virgin plastic production by 2030. Phasing out single-use plastic usage lessens the plastic burden placed on the waste system and is estimated to lower plastic waste generation to 188 million metric tons, a 57% reduction from the business as usual scenario.
At the Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, strategists including Peter Lacy from Accenture, outlined how technological developments can be harnessed to turn plastic waste into an opportunity.
“It is time to see the value in all plastic,” Lacy and his colleagues wrote. “And to begin to view used plastic not as a waste product, but rather as a new raw resource with infinite possibilities.”