Sun, Nov 10, 2019 - Page 7 News List

‘Plastic Atlas’ a guide as world grapples with the waste crisis

By Lili Fuhr and Froilan Grate

Plastics have become a hot topic. News stories about plastic on beaches and in the oceans abound, and policymakers have begun to respond with bans or limitations on plastic bags and single-use plastic items.

However, the plastics industry is fighting back, arguing that plastics are indispensable, and that the real problem is littering consumers and poor waste-management systems. According to the industry’s talking points, bedridden hospital patients and the elderly depend on bendy straws, and phasing out shrink-wrap on vegetables will lead to a food-spoilage disaster.

No one doubts that waste management in much of the developing world — and even in many richer countries — needs to be improved. Governments urgently need to invest in better waste-collection and processing systems, but the rich world also must stop exporting its worthless plastic waste to poor countries for so-called “recycling.” All too often, the trash that Europeans and Americans sort and separate into different bins ends up in containers bound for Southeast Asia, to be picked up by underpaid workers in hazardous conditions. Ultimately, much of it ends up in dumpsites or waterways anyway.

More to the point, the flood of plastic into our natural systems is linked directly to the other forces that are destroying our environment, decimating biodiversity, fueling climate change and depleting natural resources. That is the main finding of the Plastic Atlas, recently published by the Heinrich Boll Foundation and the Break Free From Plastic Movement.

As the Atlas — a compendium of facts, figures and background information on the synthetic polymers that have become an integral part of our lives over the past 70 years — makes clear, the plastics industry has been selling us a false narrative. The plastics crisis is much more than a waste-management problem. The real story starts as soon as oil and gas are extracted from the ground, and continues long after plastic waste enters the ocean and other ecosystems. Not only is plastic production a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, it also releases a wide range of other chemicals into the environment, many of which end up in our lungs and stomachs.

Thus, while efforts to tackle waste are important, they must not distract attention from the main problem: The world is producing far too much plastic in the first place. Between 1950 and 2017, about 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic were produced globally, which is equivalent to about 1 tonne per living person today. Worse, more than half of that plastic has been churned out since 2000 and the rate of production continues to accelerate with no slowdown in sight.

According to recent estimates, plastic production and incineration could emit 51 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050, accounting for 10 to 13 percent of the total carbon budget we can “spend” by mid-century under current emissions-reduction commitments. By the end of the century, plastic-related emissions could amount to half the total carbon budget.

The climate crisis and the plastics crisis are two sides of the same coin. To keep global warming within an acceptable range, we absolutely must reduce the amount of plastic we produce, consume and discard. And no, this is not a problem that we can recycle our way out of. Less than 10 percent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled. In the case of the US, less than 10 percent of plastic waste is recycled; the rest is incinerated or dumped in landfills.

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