Dec 05 2017

Plastic Waste

I know, there are already so many things to worry about. It’s almost painful to hear about one more way in which we may be harming the world. Such reports are also often couched in emotional and dramatic terms.

However, it’s important to sift through the rhetoric and evaluate what the science says about what is actually going on. There is increasing reporting about the coming plastic apocalypse. We are dumping massive amounts of plastic into the environment, and some of that plastic is winding up in the world’s oceans. The world produced 343 million tons of plastic in 2014. Only 10% of that plastic was recycled. In total we have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, which does not biodegrade for hundreds of years.

The fact is, human civilization is big enough that we have to think about the effects of our massive industry. Producing that much plastic will likely have an impact on the environment. The biggest impact may be the percentage that winds up in the oceans – about 10%. Once there is just breaks down into smaller and smaller bits. Many animals accidentally eat the plastic, which can be fatal.

The good news is there are simple and effective ways to manage our plastic waste. The number one plastic polluter is China –  almost 9 million metric tons of their plastic ends up on the ocean each year. The next country is Indonesia, with just over 3 million metric tons, followed by the Philippines, at just under two. The USA ranks 20th with less than 300 thousand million metric tons.

You may have noticed that there are countries with far bigger economies than Indonesia who produce far less plastic waste ending up in the ocean. The US still has the largest economy in the world (24%) with China second at 14.8%. So with a larger economy we dump 1/30th the plastic into the ocean as China.

This means that it is possible to properly manage our plastic waste. While the world average for recycling plastic is about 10%, the US is 28%. There is still a lot of room for improvement. But we also keep a larger portion of that plastic from getting into the ocean.

So what do we do? At the very least we need to bring all countries in line with average plastic management. The worst polluters need to make significant changes to the way they handle plastic, and that alone would make a dramatic improvement. That’s the low-hanging fruit.

But every country can do better. Recycling rates should be much higher. This is mainly about making it easy to recycle.

Companies can also evaluate what plastic they produce as part of their products and packaging, and consider ways to limit plastic and use more biodegradable materials.

There are lots of little things individuals can do as well. I actually find it easier to shop with large reusable bags, rather than carrying small plastic bags or fragile paper bags. That’s a win-win. I have also switched from using disposable plastic water bottles to a reusable water bottle. This ends up saving money – so again, a win-win.

Plastic is an extremely useful material. It is cost effective and practical for many applications. I’m not arguing that we should stop using it altogether. But it does have the feature of remaining in the environment for a long time, and findings its way into the ocean. So we just need to use it intelligently, to minimize waste down to a sustainable level.

We don’t need any major innovation or change in our economy. This problem is actually not that hard to fix, just by picking the low-hanging fruit.

 

12 responses so far

12 thoughts on “Plastic Waste”

  1. bend says:

    If you like reusable bags (as do I, for some things) then fine. But the focus on HDPE grocery bags as uniquely bad for the environment, which bag bans and bag taxes do, obscures much bigger problems. I know that you’re not always on board with the libertarians at Reason (though they have recently done a very good job, relative to some libertarian organizations, with science topics, publishing articles favoring vaccination and against climate change denial). They published a facinating article on HDPE grocery bags a few months back. In it they note that litter surveys consistently show HDPE bags accounting for less than 1% of plastic waste in storm drains and presumably similarly in the ocean. And David Santillo, a senior biologist with Greenpeace, has noted, It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags…On a global basis plastic bags aren’t an issue.” I don’t think switching to the reusable PP bags really has any significant effect on the environment as a whole. I’d read the article. It’s got some interesting points.

    http://reason.com/archives/2015/09/01/plastic-bags-are-good-for-you

  2. Johnny says:

    I notice that in a lot of countries on that list, environmental issues aren’t high on the list. Still, it’s surprising to note that Algeria, a country of 40 million inhabitants, dispose what seems to be about twice the amount of plastic waste in the ocean compared to the USA. Or the amount disposed by Sri Lanka, 21 million inhabitants.

    (Not intended in any way to pick on Algeria or Sri Lanka. But many of the other countries on the list have quite large populations, and from what I understand, that list is not on a per capita amount.)

    Where I live, Sweden, most chains will not give you plastic bags for free, instead you’ll have to pay a few SEK (1 USD ~ 8.3 SEK) if you want one. Do you think that could be a worthwhile policy elsewhere as well? At least it should encourage the re-use of existing plastic bags.

  3. Drake says:

    Plastic is an extremely useful material. It is cost effective and practical for many applications. I’m not arguing that we should stop using it altogether. But it does have the feature of remaining in the environment for a long time, and findings its way into the ocean. So we just need to use it intelligently, to minimize waste down to a sustainable level.

    Post-consumer plastic waste is also a valuable commodity: https://resource-recycling.com/plastics/2017/05/10/post-consumer-pet-prices-rise-hdpe-drops/

    Making sure consumer recycling is simple and convenient goes a long way toward keeping plastic waste out of landfills and the environment.

    Designing products and packaging in such a way that low-value, problematic waste (such as styrofoam) is reduced or eliminated, while high-value waste like PET and HDPE is easily recovered, is also relatively low-hanging fruit.

  4. Bob.Newman says:

    Could the US’s tendency to bury all of it’s trash in landfills contribute it’s position on this list? I wasn’t quite clear on the separation between the plastic trash a country generates and how much the country allows to enter the oceans. I would tend to believe that the US generates a lot of plastic trash but buries most of it.

  5. BBBlue says:

    Johnny- Same in California since last year. $.05-.10 / bag. Most people bring their own.

  6. mumadadd says:

    “The US still has the largest economy in the world (24%) with China second at 14.8%. So with a larger economy we dump 1/30th the plastic into the ocean as China.”

    Shhhh… Don’t let Donald Trump find out about that or he might try and fix it.

  7. bend – I agree. plastic bags are just one small piece, not uniquely bad or even a major component. But it all adds up, and again I think it is actually easier to use reusable bags. They are bigger, more comfortable to hold, and they don’t break on your way in to the house.

    I also agree that focusing on the wrong thing can have unintended negative consequences, like thinking the problem is solved when bigger issues are being ignored.

  8. SleepyJean says:

    In the Eastern South Pacific, near Easter Island is Henderson Island. Its an uninhabited coral atoll covered with an estimated 38 million pieces of plastic waste or 18 tons of waste. It is an astonishing site to behold.

  9. BillyJoe7 says:

    SleepyJean,

    The Monkees! 🙂

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Yl_XQVKe6So

  10. Grant Jacobs says:

    My personal experience (i.e. anecdote, with the weaknesses that has) is there is (still) a different attitude to waste in much of Asia — there it’s mostly just stuff people have stopped using. The upshot is that rubbish is just dropped wherever. A lot ends up in the rivers, and I presume from there to the seas.

    While I’m writing can I share a blog post offering some thoughts on the future of plastics from a guest writer at Sciblogs? (Delete this if it seems wrong of me; I write at Sciblogs too.)

    The future of plastics: reusing the bad and encouraging the good
    by Kim Pickering, University of Waikato

    https://sciblogs.co.nz/guestwork/2017/12/03/plastics-future/

  11. Kawarthajon says:

    I am going to go on a rant and I would like to apologize in advance…

    Why the heck do we allow ANYTHING to be produced that cannot be recycled or composted? AHHHH! There is such an incredibly simple solution to this problem – only allow manufacturers to make packaging and products out of recyclable plastics or compostable materials! Am I missing something here? It seems like a no-brainer to me. Recyclable plastics are great for making packaging, clothes, bottles, toys, containers, etc. I know that recycling all plastics won’t solve the problem of plastics getting into the environment (i.e. wearing down tires or shoe soles, wind blowing plastic bags, etc.), but it sure will help! It is a pretty cost effective solution too, because dumping garbage is getting more and more expensive, not to mention that it is terrible for the environment in a variety of ways.

    …Ahhh, feels better to get it off my chest. I apologize if I’ve upset anyone by yelling. Now, let’s all work on making this vision a reality!

  12. Dan Dionne says:

    My wife and I lived in a mobile home community with a robust recycling program. We kept most plastic, glass, and cardboard in a single bin, and put it out once every two weeks. So easy, and it felt good not to just throw it away.

    I noticed that local participation was low. Probably fewer than half the residents on the street put out their bins. Maybe my neighbors needed further incentives.

    We moved to an apartment closer to the city center, and unfortunately, they don’t have a recycling program. It still feels wrong to throw away so much. How do we get more communities to adopt these programs?

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