We all use plastic every day. It packages our food, is part of our cars and public transport, and even clothes us. Annual plastic production increased nearly 200-fold to 381 million tonnes from 1950 to 2015. By 2015, 7.8 billion tonnes of plastic had been produced. And production is accelerating as people in developing countries adopt a throwaway culture.
But while this lightweight, strong, waterproof material has many benefits, it comes with some big drawbacks. Most plastic isn't biodegradable, so it stays in the environment for hundreds of years damaging ecosystems. And it relies on oil for its production and therefore has a negative impact on carbon emissions. Increasing plastic production – and recycling rates of less than a fifth in 2015 – mean that plastics are almost everywhere on earth, in our oceans and our bodies. This is bad for our health, wildlife and the planet. What can be done? Here are some ideas:
- Recognise that action is essential; doing nothing is not an option. Plastic packaging causes €36 billion of damage to the world, according to UN Environment. Given projected growth in consumption, oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050, by which time the plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget.
- Accept the scale of the challenge: recycling is not straightforward and a circular model for plastics is extremely difficult, says Thijs Geijer, food and agricultural economist and author of a new ING report on plastics (only in Dutch). The majority of food packaging, one of the biggest sources of plastics, cannot be reused by the food industry for food safety reasons. And plastics degrade and lose their value in every successive cycle. Nor can plastics just be swapped for alternatives, such as paper or glass, which also have high environmental costs.
- Embrace changing consumer attitudes as a driver of corporate motivation. The 13 firms that have signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025’ campaign, including L’Oréal, Mars, and Coca-Cola, want to enhance their reputation among customers, many of which are eager to make ‘greener’ choices. Our buying power as consumers could prompt “a transition from the linear take-make-dispose model to one which is truly circular by design,” says former Unilever CEO Paul Polman. Action can be swift once the public is mobilised. For instance, changing consumer demand has put pressure on companies to abandon plastic straws. As a result, paper straws now account for 45% of production (up from 10% two years ago) at one of the world’s largest manufacturers of plastic straws, China’s Soton Daily Necessities.
- Governments must set standards, impose rules and incentivise activity. In the Netherlands and Germany, for instance, Unilever, IKEA and other firms pay a levy that funds improved recycling infrastructure and innovation. Similarly, the closed loop of PET bottle recycling, incentivised in Germany and elsewhere by a deposit scheme, shows what can be achieved: bottles have a return rate of 96%. And in Rome, it’s now possible to trade plastic bottles for metro tickets, helping to increase recycling and boost public transport use.
- Don’t look for a single solution. There are many ways to increase recycling, reduce plastic production and encourage the use of bioplastics; changes to plastic composition to promote easier recycling, and taxes, subsidies and incentives could all be important. Different solutions, or combinations of solutions, may be needed for different markets or countries if we are to reduce plastic incineration or landfill. Companies and consumers need to be open-minded and flexible: the balance of solutions is likely to change over time as technology evolves – bioplastics are still at an early stage of development, for example.
- Go back to the future. The new Loop refillable service involving Pepsi, Unilever, and Nestlé is a web-based subscription service that uses the latest business model and technology, as well as some very old-fashioned ideas: high quality reusable containers are delivered and collected in a similar way to home milk services in days gone by. UK supermarket Waitrose’s packaging free pilot is a similar store-based idea. Transformation could come quicker than some expect: shoppers’ have shown themselves to be capable of rapidly reverting to sustainable behaviour given the right incentives. Once everyone took their shopping home in reusable bags and baskets; that changed when supermarkets introduced single-use plastic bags. But by implementing a small charge for single-use plastic bags, the UK was able to cut their use by 90% in just four years.