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Stemming the Plastic Tide


Some improvement, but there's still far too much plastic and the industry was planning to double production from it's present 400 million tonnes annually, by 2040


I was just about to write to a lady in the UK who was complaining about her government not doing anything about plastics in schools. I wanted to tell her about what’s been happening here and how school children in Australia had pretty much resolved the matter on their own following Craig Reucastle's  ABC TV series The War on Waste in 2017. 

Households and school children participated in assorted challenges to reduce their waste and did it very successfully too -it was better than any other reality TV show, and the feat was replicated around the country. Neighbourhoods and schools can still do this for themselves and challenge each other to do better. Measuring, calculating and so forth can easily be included as part of the curriculum. You can download the toolkit here.

Our household rubbish went to near zero due to various other initiatives too. Our council banned single use plastic bags and takeaway containers especially from festivals and the like. It also instituted a green bin system which meant food waste and other organic matter is collected and converted to compost (take note UK peat users) and school children were insisting on taking ‘naked lunches’ – in other words without plastic wrappers. Our beaches were cleaner – there were fewer plastic bags and straws and things were looking pretty good.

That is, until China stopped taking our rubbish and we found out what really happened to all those things which we were recycling. And if we were wondering why the rubbish mountains weren’t reducing I certainly found out when I didn’t have my car. The health food shop where you can buy in bulk doesn’t deliver and it wasn’t much fun struggling with bulk food and glass jars on the bus. The big supermarkets do deliver but still double and triple wrap everything in copious layers of plastic. Normally they take these back in a special bin instore when you go in person, but it took quite a bit of persuading to get even a few of the drivers to take it back. Since the majority of people still go to the major stores, you can see why there are still mountains of rubbish, not just bagged up in piles either but also in the sea. 

Since then….

Fearing regulation, the biggest supermarkets announced this week, that people could bring their own containers for some produce- mostly deli items, in selected stores. [However, at least one of the the two biggest has now closed their own butchers which means that meat now comes in bomb - proof, vacuum -packed oversize trays, rather than paper and one bit of thin plastic]. 

In May 2021, sixty companies including major retailers and producers such as Nestle and Coca Cola have signed an ANZPAC plastics pact that will make all plastic packaging in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.  (Only 18% was recycled during 2018 -2019).

More recently, the federal government has finally stepped in to transform some regular recycling into new products. Its  National Waste Action Plan aims to reduce total waste generated in Australia by 10% (not an ambitious target) and recycle 80% of that which is produced. It’s investing $800 million in infrastructure to sort, process and remanufacture plastic, paper, tyres and glass and thus prevent 100 million tonnes of waste going to landfill.

“Glass bottles are being turned into roads (seems like a terrible waste given the amount of energy and material required simply to make glass!) plastic bottles are being turned into boardwalks and shampoo bottles into playgrounds,” says the website. You can see some of the products here

·         It’s also using sustainable procurement to support recycling to reduce the need for raw material and encouraging companies to take responsibility for products throughout their lifecycle. Let’s hope this works out better than last time. It seems criminal to me that taxpayers are having to fund the companies which are profiting from using unsustainable materials and from creating them. The responsible people are also always expected to make the effort, do the right thing and pay the extra while those who don’t, get off scotfree.



We also have some minor bottle deposits -10c on some products, but I have tried to return these to several places which stock the product – the local milk bar and even the health food shop, but none will accept the bottles, much less pay the ten cents. Some products are now at least either recyclable or made of natural materials. I have a bamboo toothbrush; the rubbish bags are greener and so is the kitchen paper.


However progress is slow. Plastic doesn’t disappear. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller particles (microbeads and nanoparticles) and these have been found in the air, in water, in seafood, in Antarctica and the human body, with as yet unknown effects. Plastic waste still turns up on the ocean floor, entangled or ingested by wildlife and so on. Four hundred million tons are produced each year of which an estimated 8 million tons winds up in the sea. Even worse, instead of producing less plastic the industry had planned increase its output by 40%. The Centre for International Environmental Law estimates that if the plans go ahead the volume of plastic in the sea would exceed the volume of fish by 2050. I won't even mention the billions of tons of CO2 involved in their production or the health effects. Plastics may be cheap to produce, light and convenient, but they cost the earth.



What other Countries are doing

Eighty countries around the world have now banned plastic bags, including 30 African nations. Many Asian ones have too. Bangladesh was the first to do so in 2002. Kenya has the strictest bans with sale or import attracting fines of up to $40,000 and a prison term of up to four years. Rwanda now searches passenger luggage at borders and confiscates any bags.

While developed countries such as Australia, the UK and the USA have failed to take action at the national level, individual states such as California, Hawaii and Maine in the USA and Tasmania and the Northern Territory in Australia, have done so. Germany has had taxes on bag use at least as early as 1972, Denmark since 1994. Since Ireland introduced taxes in 2002, plastic bag use and litter dropped by 90%. Individual cities both in Europe and the USA have taken action too.  Canada introduced bans on six plastic items in 2021 – plastic bags, straws, stir sticks, six pack rings  and hard to recycle plastic cutlery and takeaway containers 

In Asia, China banned thin plastic bags just before the 2008 Olympics and put a tax on thicker ones. This resulted  a 2/3rd reduction in their use.  Other Asian countries which have bag bans or taxes include Cambodia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia.

In South America, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia have all taken action to reduce plastic bags or at least replace them with biodegradable ones. In May 2021, after two years of hard work by environmental groups, Chile passed ambitious legislation to ban disposable plastic food containers in a move that it expects to reduce waste going to landfill by 23,000 tonnes a year.

Companies are hearing the call. Unilever has integrated reuse into 55 of its product lines. For example, its dilutable Dove Bodywash now comes in 4 x concentration with an aluminium container which can be refilled. In other cases, products are dispensed in reusable, squeezable bottles made from half the amount of plastic. Home refills of cleaning and laundry products are being delivered by electric tricycle in Chile, which also supports social enterprise. A bit like other forms of online shopping, you place and pay for your order online and the products are brought to you. Instore refill trials are underway in Asda Supermarkets and Co - Op stores in Ireland and the UK. For those with no time to do their own refilling, there will also be places where you can collect refills on the go and leave your refillable container, much as we do with LPG cylinders. Unilever has also made a commitment to use at least 25% recycled plastic in its packaging and to collect more than it sells. Coleman's are making fully recyclable food sachets. Ben and Jerry's, Carre D'Or and Walls are using paper ice cream tubs, whereas European Magnum ice cream uses tubs made from recycled plastic. Hellman's mayonnaise uses 80% recycled content in its containers and they are themselves recyclable.

Positive as this is, this still leaves a great deal of packaging and plastic unaccounted for including products such as disposable nappies, fishing gear, plumbing pipes, appliances, electronics, car parts, COVID masks and synthetic fibres in clothing and other apparel.

Breaking News!! 2/3/2022

How fitting that today, on World Wildlife Day, the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi passed a resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. It was adopted by the Heads of State and Environment Ministers of 175 countries. The Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Inger Andersen, hails it as "..the  most important international multilateral environmental deal since the Paris climate accord.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t take as long to put into effect!.