I recently wrote a blog post about plastic pollution because of the global Plastic Free July Challenge, but I have to write about it again after watching the launch event and webinar “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution” held by The PEW Charitable Trusts and SystemiQ.
I want to stress this subject and share some of the findings of the report because you must understand how important the participation of the consumer, aka you and me, in all of this is. We can’t drop all responsibility and wait for someone else to solve the problem. We, our ‘throw away culture’, have exacerbated the problem. It’s a whole system problem AND a society problem. The report clearly shows that ALL stakeholders, – governments, industries and civil society need to work together. Everyone has to play their part in order for us (globally) to achieve the impact and reduction in plastic pollution that is possible.
Why Is This Important? Where Are We Headed?
The plastic wave is expected to DOUBLE in the next 20 years. In the same time plastic pollution is to TRIPLE in terrestrial ecosystems and QUADRUPLE in the ocean.
There are already parts of the world where you are literally swimming with plastic waste. We must take the opportunity to stop this from happening everywhere. 20 years from now is 2040! Most of you reading this will be still alive, so this is not a far distance thing. The report also emphasizes that we have to start now, not even a 5 year delay, in order to stop 80 million metric tons of plastic in the ocean by 2040. (1 metric unit of mass is equal to 1,000 kilograms or 2,204.6 pounds)
The report calculated that our current efforts by governments and industries will only lead to 7% in reduction, which is clearly not enough.
What’s the Way Out?
Business as usual is not the way out and as we just learned, current commitments are good for a step but are not good enough to solve the issue.
Taking the recycling scenario, we simply can’t recycle our way out of the problem. Waste management systems don’t have sufficient capacity at the global level to safely dispose of or recycle waste plastic. The result is an inevitable increase in plastic pollution into the environment.
Even with the development of an ambitious recycling infrastructure together with an ambitious collection infrastructure with an ambitious design for recycling and even scaling chemical recycling, would only put a dent on pollution but not lead anywhere near to zero-leakage.
Further the report suggests that ‘Reduce and Substitute’ scenarios and ‘Collect and Dispose’ scenarios will flatten the curve but not get near to zero either.
The Solution? Only when you combine upstream (pre-consumption, e.g., reducing demand) and downstream (post-consumption, e.g., collection and recycling) solutions together, which Systemiq calls a ‘System Change’ scenario, you are able to reduce leakage by over 80%.
After evaluating actions that need to be taken and the cost for companies, the system and the planetary cost, Systemiq concludes that the reduce wedge is potentially the most cost effective one, where you reduce plastic and use reusables systems that could also have a net saving.
However, that requires implementing all known solutions ambitiously, concurrently and starting immediately.
Where Do We Start?
Plastic packaging is definitely the biggest contributor to plastic in the environment. Flexible mono materials such as plastic bags for example, and multi-layer materials often used for food and beverages packaging make up to 59% of production but have a disproportionate pollution with 80% of pollution.
This means we need to focus on solutions that target these types.
What’s the Prize?
The report concludes that the ’System Change’ scenario can reduce government spending, private sector spending, it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution and it can increase jobs.
And There’s Another Issue
This post only focused on macroplastic pollution, but there is a whole other issue of microplastic pollution already increasingly found in the human food system. Ingestion have also been documented across trophic levels and at all depths of the ocean in individual organisms, species assemblages and in terrestrial organisms.
The biggest source of microplastics PEW found, will be from tire dust and the amount and proportion of microplastics from that dust, in terms of overall plastic pollution, especially in high income countries, will need to be addressed.
That gives living in places like Los Angeles a whole other meaning….
This topic is for another blog post but I am mentioning it to make clear that there is another dimension to it that can’t be ignored. Stay tuned!
There’s no room for absence of action. There’s a tremendous amount consumers have to do primarily with single-use plastic, which is about 95% of the plastic waste that litters our environment.
Unless we work together to transform the current systems, very little is going to change and we can go swimming with plastic rather than with dolphins in the near future. Is that what you want? You seriously have to ask yourself this question. If your answer is no, then you MUST reduce your plastic usage, especially single-use plastics, starting TODAY. Period.
If you are on board you can begin with the suggestions I listed in the ‘How to Celebrate Plastic Free July’ blogpost.
We’re at the crossroads. What choice do you make?
The good news:
“Many solutions are already at hand if we choose to as people globally. As a society we can do great things together. We can solve the plastic pollution problem in one generation.”Dr Winnie Lau, senior manager with the preventing ocean plastics program at Pew Charitable Trusts
If you want to go deeper, there’s a very detailed article with the July 23 publication of the technical underpinnings of the report in the journal Science, “Evaluating Scenarios Toward Zero Plastic Pollution”.