Every year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean; this accounts for just a third of all plastic waste.
If these numbers mean nothing to you, then how about this – it takes up to a thousand years for plastic to decompose. This includes your single-use grocery plastic bags, coffee cups, toothbrush, bra, electronic appliances and even your clothes (which may be made of polyester). Plastic has only been invented around 120 years ago, popularised in the 1950s and now it is virtually in every part of our lives. Plastic waste both in landfills and in the ocean has already started causing troubles, but the first generation of these wastes may only be a tenth through its lifetime. Without regulations on production and littering, the accumulating effect seems dauntingly unsustainable.
So, what troubles are plastic wastes causing?
Plastic wastes that contribute to environmental problems are largely those disposed of in landfills and in the ocean, which together make up 79% of all plastic waste.
Poorly managed landfills, especially in developing countries, lead to not only visual pollution but also health problems. For example, the Deonar dumping ground (India’s largest landfill: the size of 200 football fields and height of 18 storeys) is prone to self-combustion due to the amount of methane present. The smoke from these fires can lead to health issues like lung and skin cancer, heart diseases as well as stroke for residents living nearby, let alone the stench which deteriorates their quality of life. Vandana Trivedi, an activist, called the landfill a ‘toxic time bomb’. Similar landfills are common in cities around the world.
Plastic waste in the ocean is also a great concern – Ellen MacArthur (2016) projected that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight. As previously mentioned, plastics do not biodegrade easily but they do physically break down into smaller fragments called microplastics. Larger pieces of plastics may end up clogging the stomachs of sea animals, giving them a false impression of being full and leading to their deaths. Microplastics, on the other hand, get eaten by sea animals throughout the food chain. Even animal samples from the Mariana Trench, 11km down from sea-level, are found ubiquitously contaminated. The rubbish we dump into the ocean thus eventually gets back onto our dinner plates. It is estimated that 1 in 3 fish caught off the southwest coast of England is now contaminated, as some organisms can retain microplastics after ingestion. Tap water is another source of plastic consumption. Samples from the UK, Germany and France have contamination rates of 72% – these are some of the lowest in the world. It is still unclear what plastic consumption could do to our health.
Actions taken around the world
Almost half of plastic waste comes from plastic packaging. So while efforts to enhance the waste recycling process are also essential, policy initiatives around the world have focused on curbing the use of plastic bags. Policy makers usually have three options when they design such policies: an economic approach (imposing a levy), a regulatory approach (a ban) and a combination of the two.
English residents are familiarised with this first approach since the 2015 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in large stores, but they are latecomers. The Irish government commissioned a study of its people’s willingness to pay for a plastic bag in 1998 and introduced the tax, known as the ‘PlasTax’, in 2002 at six times such a level. The levy successfully brought plastic bag use down by more than 90% within one year. However, this was not the doing of the levy alone as the tax was paralleled with extensive consultations with industrial representatives, retailers and citizens, as well as a strong awareness campaign to minimise public resistance. The success of the Irish PlasTax proved that cooperation from the plastic industry is attainable and reasserts the importance of public support.
Nonetheless, the limitation of this method is that, with time, consumers familiarise themselves with the higher costs of living. A regulatory impact assessment reported in 2007 that plastic use had risen significantly, leading to a rise in the levy. In 2011, a piece of legislation was passed to allow PlasTax to be revised on an annual basis with a ceiling at €0.70 per bag. With such rationale, the effectiveness of the tax is limited once the ceiling is reached; thus, in the long-run plastic bag use depends predominantly on public awareness.
In 2016, a ban on production, importation, sales and the distribution of plastic bags entered into force in Morocco and led to a seizure of 421 tonnes of plastic bags within a year. Citizens essentially switched to fabric bags and the government announced victoriously in 2017 that plastic bags were virtually no longer used in the country.
Bans are, however, not always successful. Plastic bags reappeared in Gambia, after a brief success of the ban due to a political impasse. Rwanda also struggled in the beginning to enforce its total ban as critics claimed that industrial stakeholders were not sufficiently consulted, inadequate sums of money had been invested into improving the recycling technology and that there was a lack of affordable alternatives. These led to smuggling of plastic bags and an emergence of a black market. Nonetheless, with tougher enforcement and more serious penalties, the ban gradually became recognised and people started adapting their lifestyles.
Policies in the past have shown a mixture of results. Of all attempts to limit plastic bag usage, 50% lack sufficient data to evaluate the policies’ environmental impact; 30% illustrated a significant fall in plastic bag use within a year while the remaining 20% failed to make an impact. Whether an all-out ban, a levy or a combination of these two is appropriate depends on the context in each country. Public support, industrial political strength and the capacity to recycle must be considered holistically. However, certain lessons could still be extracted from past case studies.
Weak enforcement is one of the key reasons for failures as had happened, for instance, in Bangladesh and Botswana. Political forces from the industrialist groups, both retailers and plastic manufacturers themselves is another. Bag charges in Mexico City, for example, were repealed before they were even enforced due to heavy protests by plastic manufacturers.
One could, however, argue that the fundamental reason firms struggle to adopt a ban or a levy imposed by the government is the lack of an affordable alternative. The Chinese government, for instance, have banned traditional bags in favour of biodegradable ones. However, these bags can only biodegrade when exposed to a prolonged high temperature of 50 degrees Celsius or above, which only exists in incinerators and not in the ocean or landfill. With only 12% of plastic waste reaching the incinerators, biodegradable bags cannot yet be the solution. Recycling reusable bags is also not usually locally possible as the added material in such bags require more sophisticated procedures. Reusable bags therefore usually end up in landfills by the end of their lifetime.
Inventing alternatives to plastic has proved to be harder than expected. Starbucks, for example, disposes of 4 billion of its disposable cups every year. These cups are not recyclable because of the thin layer of plastic lined inside, which allows them to contain liquid. The firm pledged in 2010 to switch to reusable or recyclable cups by 2015, but failed to meet the target. In 2018, Starbucks offered $10 million for ideas on a better cup, illustrating their willingness, yet inability to be more sustainable.
Finally, every movement towards a more sustainable, less plastic-dependent world depends largely on public awareness. As seen in Ireland, the effectiveness of their PlasTax ultimately relies on the public recognising the need to curb plastic use. In the UK, a recent consultation indicated overwhelming public support for the government to tackle single-use plastic waste, giving the government mandate to utilise whatever tools at their disposal to deal with the problem. Therefore, in the long run what policy makers need to put on their agenda is to raise public awareness and make sure that reducing plastic use is on everybody’s own agenda.