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Reining in the Plastics Problem

Eight million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans every year. What is being done to clean it up?

Eight million tons of plastic waste enters our oceans every year. The Plastic Problem details how we got to this point. Here we discuss efforts underway to address the problem.

Plastic enters the environment through several paths (see The Plastic Problem). In early 2015, research led by University of Georgia professor Jenna Jambeck linked worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status to estimate the amount of plastic waste that entered the oceans in 2010. Jambeck’s findings suggested that among the top 20 polluting countries, 19 are from the global South; among the top 10, eight are from Asia. China is the biggest polluter. The fallout from this study, and work that has come since, was immediate and expansive.

Media worldwide jumped on the article. Sky News, in partnership with WWF, launched a full-fledged campaign, Sky Ocean Rescue; Sky News also published an article calling out five of the biggest soft drink companies for using only 7 percent recycled plastic in their products. Greenpeace later launched targeted campaigns against companies like Coca-Cola. Numerous beach clean-up exercises were organized across the world—though these alone are far from enough to solve the problem: less than 6 percent of marine plastics occur as litter on the beach.

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Source: Green Alliance


Corporate Commitments:

Growing understanding among the public and the growing threat of NGO attacks on plastic packaging led companies from across the value chain—from producers like Amcor to consumers like Nestlé—to announce public commitments or ambitions ensuring that all of their packaging would be recyclable or reusable by 2025.

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Source: New Plastic Economy Initiative, Ellen MacArthur Foundation


In addition, many companies have committed to increasing the use of recycled plastics in their packaging, thereby reducing demand for virgin plastic. These efforts have often been criticized as the very least that these companies can do, but most companies have neither control over nor responsibility for ensuring proper waste management infrastructure in the markets where they sell their products.

Governments tighten regulations

Governments around the world are generally tightening regulations on plastics.

European Union: On October 24, 2018, EU Parliament voted to ban single-use plastic products such as straws, cutlery, and stirrers. This ban is to take effect across the EU starting in 2021. The measure passed with 571 votes to 53, with 34 abstentions. Movement toward this resolution began in January 2018, when the EU Commission declared a set of recycling goals: all plastic packaging on the EU market recyclable by 2030; the consumption of single-use plastics reduced; and the intentional use of microplastics restricted. The EU Commission has also come up with the EU Plastics Strategy based on the concepts of a circular economy. This strategy proposes making recycling profitable for business by setting up new rules on packaging, focusing on improving recyclability, and increasing the demand for recycled plastic content. It also plans to drive innovation by investing an additional €100 million in the development of more recyclable plastic materials.

India: In 2016 the Indian Government enacted the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. Their written intent was “to give thrust on plastic waste minimization” and “adopt polluter’s pays principle for the sustainability of the waste management system.” The rules required “manufacture and use of all non-recyclable multilayered plastic to be phased out” within two years of their enactment. Moreover, they required “all brands and suppliers of plastic packaging to work out modalities for waste collection system based on Extended Producers Responsibility through their own distribution channel.” In other words, companies that sell products in non-recyclable packaging must move to recyclable packaging. Whatever packaging these companies sell must be collected through their own supply chains, at their cost, to ensure that it is recycled. This translates into huge costs transferred to businesses since the supply chain now must run in both directions—to consumers, and back to the company.

African nations: Kenya implemented one of the toughest plastic bag bans in the world by “banning the use, manufacture and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging.” The law went into effect on August 28, 2017, with penalties of up to $40,000, or four years, in prison for anyone manufacturing, selling, or even using a plastic bag. Other East African nations like Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, and South Sudan are now traveling a similar path by banning plastic bags.

China: In July of 2017, China banned imports of 24 categories of waste, including several categories of plastics. This has generated a ripple effect: countries around the world that once exported plastic waste to China for recycling are now forced to look for alternatives. For instance, since the ban, China’s imports of plastic from the United Kingdom (UK) have fallen by 97 percent while the UK’s exports of plastic waste to Malaysia have tripled; the UK may soon be forced to invest in domestic recycling. In short, calls for domestic recycling have grown since more nations are imposing bans on the import of plastic waste. Cities and governments are also under pressure to recycle more and, quite obviously, businesses should expect to shoulder some of these growing pressures.

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Despite these efforts on the part of NGOs, private companies, and governments, a number of important steps remain to support truly effective plastic management efforts. The next blog in this series takes up these issues.

Photo credit Mike Batson.