Commentary / World

Pathways to tackling the plastic waste problem

by Brahma Chellaney

Is the human species becoming a cancer on the planet? This question arises from the grim findings of a new United Nations study that human actions are irremediably altering natural ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction. “Nature across the globe has now been significantly altered,” with 75 percent of the land surface extensively modified, 85 percent of the wetlands lost, and two-thirds of the oceans bearing mounting cumulative impacts, according to the study’s just-released summary of findings. Another study published in this month’s Nature, the journal of science, reports that humans have modified the flows of most long rivers other than those found in remote regions.

Not surprisingly, biodiversity is declining rapidly across the world. Aquatic ecosystems, for example, have lost 50 percent of their biodiversity since the 1970s. One major driver is plastic pollution.

Bottled water has become an important source of plastic waste, along with single-use straws, cutlery, food containers and other plastic items. Plastic debris is clogging up landfills, blocking drains, polluting waterways and contributing to biodiversity loss. Plastic litter on roadsides and beaches and in other public spaces is an eyesore.

Mass production of plastics began just six decades ago. The bottled-water industry, however, took off after the commercial advent in the 1990s of single-serve bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or polyester plastic. Fabricated from crude oil and natural gas, PET has helped turn water — and other drinks — into portable and lightweight consumer products. But PET takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and, if incinerated, generates toxic fumes.

Other forms of plastics are also polluting land and water. They include low-density polyethylene, which creates shopping bags, bubble wrap, flexible bottles and wire and cable insulation; high-density polyethylene used for making toys, garden furniture, trash bins, detergent and bleach bottles, buckets and jugs; and polypropylene found in bottle tops, diapers, drinking straws, lunch boxes, insulated coolers, and fabric and carpet fiber.

Barely 18 percent of plastic waste is recycled globally — and slightly more in Japan. The rest ends up as trash and litter. For example, tens of billions of easily recyclable PET bottles are discarded as garbage every year.

Chinese and Indian bans on import of plastic waste for recycling are accentuating the global plastic crisis. Many cities in advanced economies, faced with mountains of plastic waste, are struggling to expand landfill capacities. Japan, for example, confronts spiraling plastic waste despite shipping more such trash to Southeast Asia following China’s imposition of import restrictions in late 2017. Japan now must recycle more of its waste at home, an imperative that has prompted Japanese firms to pour investments into plastic recycling plants. With virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic, Japan could offer manufacturers tax concessions to switch to recycled plastic.

Against this background, about 180 countries agreed on May 10 to a new U.N. accord to regulate the export of plastic waste, some eight million tons of which ends up in the oceans each year — the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic being tipped into the sea every minute. The accord amends the 1989 Basel Convention on the control of hazardous wastes to include plastic trash.

Plastic pollution of oceans has increased tenfold since 1980 alone. By affecting many species of marine life, such pollution threatens human food chains. Microplastics, the tiny particles into which plastic degrades into, have been found in many fishes’ guts.

A similar challenge to human health is posed by a different class of plastic particles called microbeads, used as abrasives in cosmetics and toothpaste. Such fine particles are not filtered out by most wastewater treatment plants. Despite efforts in some countries to prohibit or regulate their use, microbeads have entered freshwater bodies, such as the Great Lakes, where they can become coated with cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs. Mistakenly eaten by fish, these particles then enter human bodies.

As the U.N. study warns, “Plastic microparticles and nanoparticles are entering food webs in poorly understood ways.”

Not enough is being done to address the plastic waste scourge. Some popular consumer products are a source of environmental degradation even without the plastic containers in which they are marketed. Bottled water is a prime example. Bottled water carries a large environmental footprint: It entails use of significant resources to source, process, bottle and transport the water. For example, 1.6 liters of water, on average, are used to package one liter of bottled water. Processing and transportation of bottled water result in a notable carbon footprint.

Much of the bottled water sold globally is extracted groundwater that has been subjected to reverse osmosis or other treatment of the kind given to tap water. Yet more and more people don’t trust tap water and rely on bottled water, making it the largest commercial growth area among drinks. Tapping subterranean water reserves on a large scale for bottling depletes not just aquifers but also rivers and streams that draw water from aquifers. Premium bottled water, sourced from glaciers’ runoff, is also compounding human impacts on fragile ecosystems.

It is past time for the international community to deal with its plastics-centered environmental health challenges. Why allow the use of plastics for products (including plates, cups, straws, cutlery, drink stirrers and cotton swabs) where non-plastic alternatives are available and commercially affordable? Beverage companies, for example, should be made to use biodegradable or eco-friendly reusable containers, instead of PET bottles.

In fact, there is a dire need for a global ban on single-use plastics, whose increasing use is triggering a slow-onset disaster. Japan and other countries may be reluctant, but a legally binding, global phase-out of most single-out plastics has become inescapable.

A global prohibition would need to be strictly enforced. In the absence of enforcement, current partial bans on single-use plastic shopping bags in more than 100 countries, for example, have proved ineffective.

Creating a more sustainable world demands effective management of plastic waste, innovations toward eco-friendly substitutes, and monetary incentives to help clear the plastic debris. It also calls for reducing consumer demand for environmentally harmful products that also generate a lot of plastic waste, like bottled water.

The right policies and regulations can promote high rates of recycling and prevent plastic waste in public spaces. Japan has been slow to respond to the plastic-waste crisis, although it produces the largest amount of such waste per capita after the United States. Japan could learn from Germany, the world’s recycling champion that recycles nearly all plastic bottles. In Berlin, for example, the poor perform an environmental service by scavenging public trash bins for bottles yielding deposit return from machines at supermarkets. Imagine if an attractive monetary incentive was offered to the poor in all countries to collect bottles and other plastic waste and deposit them with retailers. It would help to dramatically control plastic trash and litter.

Waste pickers hold the key to effective waste management, including recycling, but they need a living wage to serve the public. Deposit return schemes are necessary but not sufficient as they are usually restricted to bottles. An environmental tax on plastics could help governments to raise sufficient money to incentivize the collection of all plastic debris. Consumer goods companies should also be made to help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup.

Make no mistake: The plastic waste scourge is seriously imperiling the world’s environmental well-being, including contaminating our freshwater and food chain. Without urgent action to arrest the problem, there will be, as research shows, more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050. And more people might be dying from cancer and other environmental diseases.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.