For more than 50 years, global production of plastic has continued to rise. Some 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012. Recovery and recycling, however, remain insufficient, and millions of tons of plastics end up in landfills and oceans each year, writes Gaelle Gourmelon, Communications and Marketing Manager at the Worldwatch Institute, in the Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online article (www.worldwatch.org).
Worldwide plastic production has been growing as the durable, primarily petroleum-based material gradually replaces materials like glass and metal. Today, an average person living in Western Europe or North America consumes 100 kilograms of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging. Asia uses just 20 kilograms per person, but this figure is expected to grow rapidly as economies in the region expand.
According to the United Nations Environmental Program, between 22 percent and 43 percent of the plastic used worldwide is disposed of in landfills, where its resources are wasted, the material takes up valuable space, and it blights communities. Recovering plastic from the waste stream for recycling or for combustion for energy generation has the potential to minimize these problems. However, much of the plastic collected for recycling is shipped to countries with lower environmental regulation. And burning plastic for energy requires air emissions controls and produces hazardous ash, all while being relatively inefficient.
Most plastic scraps from the United States, Europe, and other countries that have established collection systems flow to China, which receives 56 percent (by weight) of waste plastic imports worldwide. Indirect evidence suggests that most of this imported plastic is reprocessed at low-tech, family-run facilities with no environmental protection controls, such as proper disposal of contaminants or waste water. There are also concerns that low-quality plastics are not reused but are disposed of or incinerated for energy in plants that lack air pollution control systems. Through its 2010 Green Fence Operation, the Chinese government has started to work to reduce the number unregulated facilities.
Approximately 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year. A recent study conservatively estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing a total of 268,940 tons are currently floating in the world’s oceans. This plastic debris results in an estimated $13 billion a year in losses from damage to marine ecosystems, including financial losses to fisheries and tourism as well as time spent cleaning beaches. Animals such as seabirds, whales, and dolphins can become entangled in plastic matter, and floating plastic items—such as discarded nets, docks, and boats—can transport microbes, algae, invertebrates, and fish into non-native regions, affecting the local ecosystems.
The environmental and social benefits of plastics must be weighed against the problems that the durability and high volume of this material present to the waste stream. Plastics help to reduce food waste by keeping products fresh longer, allow for the manufacture of life-saving healthcare equipment, reduce packaging mass compared with other materials, improve transportation efficiency, and have large potential for use in renewable energy technologies. But plastic litter, gyres of plastics in the oceans, and toxic additives in plastic products—including colorants, flame retardants, and plasticizers (such as bisphenol A, or BPA)—are raising awareness of and strengthening consumer demand for more sustainable materials.
Along with reducing unnecessary plastic consumption, finding more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives, and improving product and packaging design to use less plastic, many challenges associated with plastics could be addressed by improving management of the material across its life cycle.
Businesses and consumers could increase their participation in collection in order to move plastic waste toward a recovery supply chain, and companies could switch to greater use of recycled plastics. Governments must regulate the plastic supply chain to encourage and monitor recycling.