Wed, Jan 04, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The global hunger for plastic packaging creates endless garbage

Despite measures to increase recycling rates, discarded plastic packaging continues to blight the Earth

By Juliette Jowit  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Five hundred tonnes of Christmas tree lights and at least 25 million bags of plastic sweet wrappers, turkey coverings, drinks bottles and broken toys were thrown away by UK homes at Christmas and New Year. However, only a tiny proportion of this festive plastic waste will be recycled.

Even at more typical times of year, only a little under one-quarter of the UK’s plastic waste is recycled, but over the festive period still less escapes the tip, according to survey by home drinks makers SodaStream. Globally, recycling of plastics is even smaller.

The outcome is a belief that planet Earth is being slowly strangled by a gaudy coat of impermeable plastic waste that collects in great floating islands in the world’s oceans; clogs up canals and rivers; and is swallowed by animals, birds and sea creatures. In many parts of the developing world it acts as a near ubiquitous outdoor decoration, along roads in India, around villages in Africa and fluttering off fences across Latin America. And when it is not piling up, it is often burned in the open, releasing noxious smoke into the surrounding area.

From the central parks of Moscow after the spring thaw, strewn with plastic uncovered by the melting snows, to some of the most remote places on Earth — the summit of Mount Everest or the Tibetan Plateau — nowhere, it seems, is free of discarded bags, bottles, unwanted toys, used toothbrushes and lost beach shoes.

There are no global figures on the true scale of the problem, but according to the European Packaging and Films Association (PAFA) 265 million tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year. In the UK at least, about two-thirds of this is for packaging, which globally would translate to 170 million tonnes of plastic largely created to be disposed after one use. Even at the almost unmatched EU recycling rate averaging 33 percent, two-thirds of that, or more than 113 million tonnes, would end up in landfill, being burned, or cluttering up the environment that people and wildlife live in.

Such a figure — almost certainly a huge underestimate, and excluding more “permanent” items from car parts to Barbie dolls — would be more than enough to cover the 48 contiguous states of the US in plastic food wrapping. If the world recycled packaging at the rate the US does, 15 percent, it would generate more than enough plastic to cover China in plastic wrap. Every year.

A few years ago the UK was seized by worry about plastic bags: communities went “plastic-bag free,” and then-British prime minister Gordon Brown announced he would talk to major retailers about phasing out their use. In the absence of much change, his successor as prime minister, David Cameron, recently re-raised the idea of a national levy.

In response, the plastics industry argues that the alternatives would be even more wasteful in terms of extra greenhouse gas emissions.

What would this world without plastic look like? Earlier this year Austrian-based environmental consultancy Denkstatt imagined such a world, where farmers, retailers and consumers use wood, metal tins, glass bottles and jars, and cardboard to cover their goods. It found the mass of packaging would increase by 3.6 times, it would take more than double the energy to make, and the greenhouse gases generated would be 2.7 times higher.

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