Rate of plastic pollution will double by 2030 as report calls for end to single-use plastics

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Since the year 2000, we’ve used more plastic than in all the years before.

Key points

  • WWF backs a global ban on single-use plastic to curb pollution
  • Producers need to be responsible for how their products are disposed of or recycled
  • Businesses and governments encouraged to stop using virgin materials in projects

On average, we each use 53 kilograms of plastic a year and generate a collective total of more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste.

By 2030, this is predicted to double, with the brunt of the impacts expected to hit our oceans.

These are just some of the figures to come from WWF’s global plastic report, Solving Plastic Through Accountability, released today.

The report urges policy makers to draft a global, legally binding agreement to stop plastic entering marine environments, and to establish strong national targets to cut down on plastic use.

About 40 per cent of plastics we consume today are single-use — things like cutlery, plates, food containers, electronics packaging.

Single-use plastics simply have to go, according to Richard Leck, WWF’s Head of Oceans and Sustainable Development.

“In terms of the calls to action, absolutely the ban around single-use plastics is very important,” he said.

“There needs to be incentives for producers to use products that aren’t single use.”

And WWF isn’t alone.

This week, Hobart City Council voted 8-4 in favour of phasing out single-use plastics by 2020, and a Senate inquiry last year recommended a national ban to be implemented over the next five years.

In what he described at the time as a “rare display of political consensus”, Greens Senator and inquiry chairman Peter Whish-Wilson said the Senate had “laid down a clear pathway for Australia to create a circular economy and stop piles of plastic, paper and glass being stockpiled or heading to landfill”.

But what would that actually look like?

Producers must be responsible for cleaning up waste

Single-use plastics have become so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine doing things any other way.

Somewhere along the line we’ve constructed a system in which it makes more sense to mine the oil to make the plastic cutlery to use once and throw away, than it does to put our steel cutlery in a dishwasher.

The way forward is to transition to a circular economy, where everything is made to be reused, according to Candice Quartermain, founder and CEO of Circular Economy Australia.

“The fact that we’re seeing stats coming out now saying there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2025 is insane,” she said.

“Circular economy is changing the economy entirely as we know it. It’s really about saying we can’t carry on the way that we are, something has to change, and the focus needs to be on quality and finding more effective ways of doing things.”

Our linear economy is creating huge waste issues
Producers need to be accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products, according to Mr Leck. (Bay Ismoyo: AFP)

In creating plastic we’ve effectively designed a material that is too good. It’s cheap, versatile and lasts a long time.

To help shift us towards a circular economy, single-use plastic needs to be more expensive to produce, according to Mr Leck.

For that to happen, producers need to be accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products.

For instance, a soft-drink bottle floating in the ocean must be the property of the company that made the bottle, and they must have factored in the cost of retrieving the bottle into their business model.

“The issue around plastic is the classic example of ‘who pays?’ At the moment, the polluters aren’t paying,” he said.

“We have to make sure that the cost of plastics to nature is incorporated into the price.”

While plastic is cheap for manufactures to produce, the UN Environment Program estimates ocean plastic pollution costs around $US8 billion each year through impacts on things like fisheries, tourism and maritime operators.

Plastic is more expensive to recycle than it’s worth

Reusable bags sold in the US
Producers need to take responsibility for the recovery of their products. (Getty Images: David McNew)

But if manufacturers cleaning up their waste sounds far-fetched, it’s already happening in parts of Europe, according to waste management expert Helen Millicer.

She’s been touring Europe on a Churchill Fellowship, and said parts of Europe are already making huge strides toward achieving a circular economy.

“Companies that don’t design or enable products to be reused or recycled, are penalised,” she said.

The European Commission is now phasing out plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws and drink stirrers in all member states. Single-use plastic bottles with detachable lids are also being banned. 

A European Commission statement has outlined a shift in responsibility from consumers and onto producers for the entire lifespan of their products, from their production right through to disposal.

“Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness-raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers, drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters, wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags,” an EU Commission statement said.

“The industry will also be given incentives to develop less-polluting alternatives for these products.”

For its part the Australian Senate report included a stipulation that the Federal Government have mandatory targets for the inclusion of recycled materials in its procurement process.

Recycling industry leaders have previously criticised states and the Federal Government for using virgin materials in projects like road and infrastructure building, while recycled stockpiles have been growing higher.

And Senator Whish-Wilson called for more incentives for businesses to use recycled products, after last year’s inquiry.

“Without incentivising domestic markets for the end-use of these waste streams it will keep piling up at rubbish tips around the country,” he said.

Incentives are needed to balance the market.

According to WWF, the cost to recycle plastic in Europe is almost double what that plastic is then worth.

Can we imagine a waste-free world?

A giant cup in a public space
This giant plastic drinking cup installation is part of a series called Natural Plasticity, by LA artists Jana Cruder and Matthew LaPenta. (@naturalplasticity: Jana Cruder & Matthew LaPenta)

While market-based mechanisms will be the most effective method for driving change, some US based artists have been taking a more conceptual approach to the issue.

Los Angeles-based artists Jana Cruder and Matthew LaPenta have been exhibiting giant plastic cups and bottles in urban and coastal environments in a series of installations called Natural Plasticity.

The size of the installations are equal to the average amount of plastic cups, bottles and straws that each American uses in a year.

Two kids stand in front of a giant plastic cup installation.
The Natural Plasticity installation challenged viewers to look at waste differently. (@naturalplasticity: Jana Cruder and Matthew LaPenta)

Feeling frustrated by the lack of action by her own government, Ms Cruder said she wanted to make something “so freaking big” they couldn’t ignore it.

“We’re not blaming anyone,” Ms Cruder said.

“We’re asking people to pay attention to their behaviours and examine them, [but] I think most people don’t know where to start.”

While reimagining a world without single-use plastics might be hard, doubling the world’s plastic pollution by 2030 will be worse, according to Mr Leck.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean contains about 78,000 tonnes of plastic, according to the latest estimates.

It’s one of five massive ocean gyres rapidly accumulating plastic waste.

“We use the analogy that, imagine if there was about 8 million tonnes of oil being pumped into the oceans each year, there would be a massive public outcry,” Mr Leck said.

“If the global plastics system is left to function as it does currently then the plastic pollution crisis risks spiralling out of control.”

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