Time to tackle the plastic problem

The world is generating a staggering amount of plastic, and an alarming quantity is finding its way into the planet’s ecosystem. Scientists are working on ways to counter that invasion, but the ultimate solution lies in slowing the use of plastics so there is less to pollute the environment. This must be a multipronged approach, with consumers, producers and governments all changing behavior. Japan has a crucial role to play in this effort.

While they have become ubiquitous in daily life, plastics have a short history. The first synthetic polymer — what we commonly call plastic — was made in 1907, but large-scale production began after World War II, when use of such materials expanded beyond the military. It is estimated that the world has produced 9.1 billion tons of plastic since 1950. Production in 2015 was 448 million tons — twice the amount produced in 1998 — and is projected to exceed 500 million metric tons by 2050. One million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, and the number is projected to grow another 20 percent by 2021.

Since it takes plastic more than 400 years to degrade, dealing with this mounting — and seemingly permanent — problem is ever more important. There are three ways to deal with plastic: recycling, incineration or dumping in the environment (either in landfills or haphazardly, when it becomes “pollution”). While the precise numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated that only about 14 percent of plastics are collected and recycled, 9 percent are incinerated and the remainder, despite growing attention to the need for proper disposal of plastics — sometimes called “sustainable use” — ends up in the environment; 5 to 14 million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans annually. If current trends continue, 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050. One troubling prediction is that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the world’s waters than fish.

The scale of the problem has spurred scientists to redouble their efforts. One avenue is to make it easier to recycle plastic. Current recycling methods are too expensive or do too much damage to the material to allow continued use. A U.S. research team has figured out how to recycle a plastic repeatedly without degrading the polymer, but the system is not yet economical.

A second prospect is development of an enzyme that can speed the breakdown of plastic. Researchers at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and Keio University have discovered a bacteria that eats polyethylene terephthalate, or PET plastic, which is used to make clothing and containers for liquid and food. As they studied the organism, they accidentally modified it in ways that made it even more efficient.

The most effective way to deal with the plastic problem, however, is limiting and reducing its use. The single largest market for plastic is packaging, an application whose growth has expanded in tandem with economic development, and the movement from reusable to single-use containers (often seen as a sign of affluence). Consumers can help by doing more to recycle the plastics they have and by telling producers and service providers that they do not want all the wrapping and packaging that is often taken as “quality service.”

Manufacturers should read those demand signals. They can take the initiative on their own, as have 42 British companies that have pledged to make sure all their plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Signatories of the “U.K. Plastic Pact” include the country’s biggest supermarkets and retailers, and are responsible for over 80 percent of the plastic packaging on products sold in the country’s supermarkets. In addition, they aim to ensure that 70 percent of plastic packaging is recycled or composted, and that all plastic packaging will have 30 percent average recycled content.

Governments should reinforce these tendencies by encouraging — if not mandating — recycling and restricting the nonessential use of plastics. Restricting use of plastics should be “built in” to policy to encourage “virtuous circles” of plastic use and consumption. The problem of water-born pollution should be a priority given the damage that plastics do once they enter the marine ecosystem.

German research indicates that 75 percent of land-borne maritime pollution comes from just 10 rivers, eight of which are in Asia. If the amount of plastic in these rivers was cut in half, the influx of plastic pollution into the oceans worldwide would be reduced by 37 percent.

Most of the plastic comes from developing economies, and here is where Japan can help make a most effective contribution. The government should be facilitating the export of recycling technologies and social systems that encourage recycling. Japan’s reliance on the oceans for its survival makes such aid a case of enlightened self-interest.