The world's plastic pollution explained
Plastic pollution is a global problem that affects us all. Every year, millions of animals die from plastics, almost 700 species are directly affected by pollution.
Scientists have found microplastics in over 100 marine species like fish, mussels, and shrimp, that, once eaten by us, pass the tiny plastic particles on into our digestive systems, bloodstreams, and even the human placenta.
How much plastic enters the oceans?
An estimated 11 to 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year, with this figure predicted to increase to 29 million annually by 2040 (‘Breaking the Plastic Wave by PEW Charitable Trusts and Systemiq.).
It begs the question: how did we even get to this point? How does this incomprehensible amount of waste even reach our oceans?
Let’s start at the beginning and look at the hard facts:
- A staggering 2 billion households in the world have no connection to a managed waste collection system (UNEP, ‘Global Waste Management Outlook’.)
- This means that 40% of all plastic produced remains uncollected (SYSTEMIQ, ‘Breaking the plastic wave’).
- 80% of the plastic that enters our oceans is non-recyclable (Source: Pew Trusts, 2016)
- 50% of all plastics ever produced have been generated only in the last 15 years.
- Globally, only 9% of plastic gets recycled.
The problem of plastics
Looking at how plastic is being used, it’s often the default choice for packaging of all kinds. It is lightweight, cheap, and versatile. It helps to keep food fresh, clothing elastic, and cosmetics in place. However, especially when it comes to packaging, plastic is often used only once. Commonly referred to as single-use plastic, this waste is immediately thrown away after consumption. After serving its purpose, it becomes worthless to the consumer. Used for only seconds, once leaked into nature, plastic stays there for hundreds of years, getting brittle by its exposure to the sun, decaying into tiny pieces called microplastic. Once crumpled into microplastic it is impossible to retrieve from the environment.
Can we Recycle Plastic? Plastic Recycling: Myth or a great concept?
There are three aspects that limit the effectiveness of recycling:
1. Bad packaging design
- Lack of infrastructure to collect and sort plastic waste
So although recycling is a fantastic method to close the loop and enable a true circular economy, we aren’t just there yet. Sadly, most plastic will continue to become trash, and tonnes of valuable resources will get wasted.
Average recycling rates of household plastics in developed countries is far less than 50%. Most of it is downcycled into low-value products that can’t get recycled after that. So the process is actually just delaying the plastics’ journey to end up on landfills.
What happens next to the packaging is strongly determined by where the consumer lives. Consumers in developed countries are used to sorting different types of waste into different types of bins. They might collect all their used plastics in a bin that is regularly emptied.
Unfortunately, the situation is completely different in other parts of the world. In developing countries, these waste management systems do not exist or are severely underdeveloped. More than two billion people around the world are not connected to a waste management system in any way.
How do we dispose of our plastic?
The business of waste management
Waste management is very expensive. In developed countries, it is usually paid for by either the companies responsible for the waste, by taxpayers’ money, or by waste management fees charged per household. In developing countries, none of these options are readily available. Brands are usually not required to pay for the waste they put into the market (through extended producer responsibility type schemes that we see in other countries), and the tax money available for cities is scarce as society is not as wealthy as in developed countries. For this reason, private households are understandably reluctant to pay for waste management services themselves.
This means that waste is often burned in backyards or thrown onto the streets, from where it easily gets carried away with the wind or rain and ends up in nature.
Where waste is collected it is often not separated, so it all ends up in the same bin. It is then disposed of in huge landfills where all different types of materials are mixed. You can find organic waste, old plastics, batteries, and sanitary products all in the same place.
These landfills are usually not very well managed. In the worst-case scenario, waste is dumped into open ground, without protecting the groundwater underneath from getting polluted.
The consequences of this are dire: as the waste volumes become too large, people either set the landfills on fire to reduce the volumes or the landfills self-ignite due to chemical processes, emitting toxic gasses into the environment thus adding to the already rampant pollution.
Waste is a source of income for millions of people
Landfills are not only hotspots for pollution but also serve as a source of income for millions of people in the developing world. The number of people that live off waste is unknown as these workers operate informally. Certain materials, that consumers in developed countries see as worthless, l are of value to them. For example, metals, paper and cardboard, and certain types of recyclable plastic like PET bottles or other hard plastics can be turned into money. Informal workers collect them from landfills and sell them to scrap dealers who then sell them to local recycling businesses. These materials are often used for down-cycling applications as they are too contaminated to be turned back into any packaging.
Other materials however cannot be repurposed or recycled. This is the case for so-called flexible plastics or multi-layer plastics which contain more than one material type. A typical example would be a chips bag that has a metalized inner layer and a plastic outer layer. This type of packaging is extremely lightweight. It only needs a gust of wind or heavy rainfall to carry it away from the landfill. The heavy rains of the monsoon season each year wash away a lot of plastic.
The waste management funding gap
There is a vast gap between the waste that people generate and the trash disposed of properly.
To rectify the issue, an estimated 500.000 people per day need to be connected to a waste collection system by 2040 in order to close this gap (‘Breaking the Plastic Wave by PEW Charitable Trusts and Systemiq.), which will be needed to prevent more tonnes of plastic from polluting our oceans.
A common misconception is that the best way to solve the ocean plastic problem is by collecting plastic from the oceans or from the environment itself.
While initiatives like these are important for raising awareness or education, they don’t solve the problem. It’s like trying to scoop water out of a leaking ship instead of plugging the hole.
Another aspect is that collecting single-use plastics at scale from the environment is difficult and costly to scale. One problem here is the material itself; a lot of plastic, particularly single-use, is extremely light. For instance, one empty chips bag weighs only 3 grams. Imagine how long it would take a waste picker to collect 1kg of it - let alone 11 million tonnes.
While we appreciate all those initiatives that set out to clean the ocean of pollution, we want to stop the problem at its source. To stop plastic from ending up in the environment in the first place by being collected and disposed of quickly, correctly, and as environmentally friendly as possible.
The Sustainable Solution for Waste
Waste collection in locations without proper waste management in place can and should be managed more efficiently, with better working conditions for waste collectors and with the best possible benefits for the environment. We believe that the most efficient and financially sustainable way to solve plastic pollution is to build up a global network of waste collection infrastructures in high-impact locations to facilitate the collection and safe processing of non-recyclable plastic. Starting in South (East) Asia which is the gateway for more than 80% of all plastic that enters our oceans.
Brands that want to take immediate action, can invest through us so we can stop plastic from entering the Oceans. This is the first step towards our goal. A world free from plastic pollution.