• The plastic pollution problem is too big to be solved by individuals - it must be addressed systemically.
  • As demand for plastic rises, so do the significant emissions associated with the entire plastic life cycle.
  • It's time to call for a global treaty that will both hold plastic producers to account, and hasten the search for alternatives.

The world’s reopening from coronavirus lockdowns is wrapped in plastic – most of which will never be recycled.

Environmentalists agree that simply cleaning up beaches won't solve the problem of plastic pollution. Nevertheless, everyone joins the cleanup these days, spurred perhaps by images such as the photographs of the birds lying dead after ingesting plastic going viral. The problem of plastic pollution has grown so large, however, that no individual person can make a real difference. It's a systemic problem with a thousand different causes that must all be addressed systemically. Telling individuals that they can make a difference is a lie – and it's one we tell ourselves so that we don't have to make the deeper changes that we're afraid of.

We must take the total emissions generated throughout the plastic life cycle into account
We must take the total emissions generated throughout the plastic life cycle into account
Image: CIEL

How effective are beach cleanups? Since only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has ever been recycled, and the marine plastic problem continues unabated, I'm going to say "not very". The only way to really make a difference is to stop plastics from entering the ocean in the first place by stemming its source - and this can only be achieved when plastic producers are made accountable.

The vast majority of monomers used to make plastics, such as ethylene and propylene, are derived from fossil hydrocarbons. None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable. Plastic begins as fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, which means that the health and climate impacts of oil and gas extraction and transportation are also part of the life cycle of plastic. Further, these fuels are converted into the chemical ingredients for plastic at plants that can release toxic emissions into the communities in which they are built, resulting in higher rates of asthma, cancer and other conditions. Many of the plastics we interact with include other chemical additives or coatings. These additives can leach out of plastics from landfills and into humans, causing even more health consequences.

Just the facts, please

Beyond the slate of essential, durable or technically demanding use-cases, plastic has also twinned itself to our modern-day throwaway culture. As much as 40% of plastics produced today go into packaging. It's time to ask ourselves: Is it ethical for a company to produce a product — especially a disposable, single-use product — and to sell it in a place that doesn't have the capacity or ability to deal with that plastic?

The steep and ongoing rise in plastic-related CO2 emissions
The steep and ongoing rise in plastic-related CO2 emissions
Image: CIEL

Further, the greenhouse gas profile of plastics is simply unsustainable. As the world begins to move away from fossil fuels for transportation, fossil fuel companies are turning to plastic production to support future growth - as per the International Energy Agency report that predicts “oil demand related to plastic consumption overtakes that for road-passenger transport by 2050”. Global plastics production and incineration currently creates the equivalent CO2 emissions of 189 coal plants. By 2050, that’s expected to more than triple, to the equivalent of 615 coal plants. At that rate, plastics would hog about 15% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.

Curtailing the source - a way forward

So, now we understand that just picking up trash won't make much of a difference beyond the cleanliness of our local beach – but we do need to work to raise awareness of the environmental and health dangers of plastic waste on our land and in our ocean. The only way to really make a difference is to stop plastics from entering the ocean in the first place by stemming the flow at its source. This can only be achieved when plastic producers are held to account.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

Should we just let the trash pile up on our beaches, in that case? Absolutely not. Instead, it's more important to remain realistic about what we set out to achieve. It is a real mistake to pretend we're saving the world with a cleanup, and the number of beach cleanups necessary will only keep rising as long as the issue is not addressed at its source.

Around 80% of plastic pollution in our ocean comes from land. By mandating governments to act, businesses to comply and consumers to be a part of the solution, a global treaty would have an impact far bigger than any beach cleanup – one where we clean up our act. This could, for example, impose a tax on all products which contain plastic. This money could then be used to help develop and subsidise alternatives that decompose naturally.

Our use of plastics is expected to double over the next 20 years – a scary thought given that microplastics from plastic pollution have infiltrated our air, food and water sources. We have to act before that happens. This will take real work. We need to demand that our leaders and policy-makers take action that fixes plastic pollution once and for all – and then we can join the beach cleanups. Let’s demand legislation that disallows the wholesale pollution of our environment by the companies that profit from this very pollution.