Plastic production is closely linked with the fossil fuel industry, and the production of petrochemicals. Plastic is a derivative of fossil fuel. Together fossil fuels, plastics and chemicals have been called a three headed monster. The production of new plastic is feeding the climate crisis. There is a campaign of misinformation going on. Most of the plastic produced is not in fact recycled, it has been calculated that less than 10% of plastic produced has ever been recycled; it is of low value, there are purposefully misleading symbols to give the public the impression that they are helping to save the planet; there are 100s of different types of plastic, often complexly intertwined, and for nearly all it is actually cost prohibitive to recycle. But with all the symbols the impression is given that it is up to consumers to deal with much of the plastic waste. At any rate it can only be recycled two or three times and is, of course, not biodegradable.
The intention of the fossil fuel companies and plastic producers is to increase the amount of virgin plastic produced, this would help them to overcome the danger of stranded assets, as society moves away from direct use of fossil fuels. They are betting their future on growth in plastics! Industry leaders are therefore keen that the public be seduced into thinking this does not matter as plastic waste can be recycled. (This is rather alike to the promise of carbon capture and storage to enable us all to go on using fossil fuels with a clear conscience, unfortunately the technology so far has failed to materialise.) But the chemical recycling, billed as a way to close the loop and enable total recovery of plastic waste, is a myth. The system is characterised by high energy input, process losses and greenhouse gas emissions, very little of the original material can return to the economy as new plastic.
Plastic waste is already choking the planet. The rich industrialised countries used to export vast amounts of plastic waste to Asia. But recently China, Mexico, Malaya, India and Indonesia, altogether 187 countries, have made it illegal to import plastic waste. This means that the USA and Europe can no longer export their waste and have to deal with it themselves. Landfill leads to the danger of toxins leaching into the surrounding land and water. Incineration in order to generate low carbon electricity is a bit of a fiction but has gobbled up plenty of public funding. Poorer countries tend to dump their plastic waste in the ocean leading to great garbage patches floating and degrading in our oceans, or burn it to the detriment of the people and neighbourhood in the vicinity. As plastics degrade they form microplastics which are now everywhere, in food systems in the Arctic, at the bottom of the oceans and at the top of mountains, polluting and poisoning.
It is therefore imperative that the production of plastic is reduced rather than augmented. This can only be done by legislation. Many countries are calling for an international convention. There is also a call to make the producers of plastic legally responsible for the plastic they put on the market – Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Whatever it takes, we must reduce the supply of plastic produced. Chemical recycling promised by the industries involved is not the answer, it is energy intensive. If it is not stopped decisively plastic production could quadruple. Plastic waste is already choking the planet and piling up around the poorest. ` The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’ (LS 21).
Let us call a halt to plastic production for a truly green and circular economy, where we can all be at home.
Jessica Gatty, ra.