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Stemming the Plastic Tide 3 - Curbing our enthusiasm for plastic

[Greenpeace together with the Break Free From Plastic coalition conducted a beach cleanup activity and plastics brand audit on Freedom Island, Philippines in 2017. © Daniel Müller / Greenpeace]


Whenever I think of our problems with plastic, I think of the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – how a really good idea turned into a nightmare. If you don’t know the story, the Master Sorcerer tells his Apprentice to clean up the workshop while he goes out for the day. The Apprentice has just enough knowledge to make the broom do it and he commands it to fetch water to wash the floor. Unfortunately he can’t remember the magic spell to stop it and the broom fetches more and more water until the place is flooded. The Master is not pleased when he comes home, but the Apprentice certainly is.

How we got here

 It’s hard to imagine now how little plastic there was when my sister and I were growing up in the 1950s. Our first encounter with modern plastics came in the form of two bright red egg cups sent by an aunt in Germany. Fast forward a few years and Mum got her first Tupperware containers at about the same time as we got a fridge. We still took our lunches to school wrapped in grease -proof paper and brown paper bags. Milk was delivered to our door in glass bottles with aluminium tops and we took our own bags and baskets to the local shops. Soft drinks also came in glass bottles and if you were lucky enough to find an empty one, you could take it to the shop and exchange it for sweets.

In the 1960s, we were given plastic -lined swimming bags and bathers made of stretchy fabric instead of our old woollen scratchy ones and some of our friends got Barbie dolls. By the time we hit our teens, there were vinyl records, a small transistor radio and the telephone – all precious objects which lasted a long time. There was no rubbish collection service either. If you dropped so much as a lolly wrapper at school, you were put on yard duty to pick up rubbish. The punishment for being caught in school uniform leaving your old chewing gum somewhere or dropping or an icy -pole stick in the street, was too horrible to contemplate. After lunch the groundsman would burn lunch scraps in the incinerator and for a while the aroma of toasted bread crusts and orange peels would waft up to the classrooms.

In the 1970s and 80s the big self -serve supermarkets began to replace corner shops and Coca Cola started coming in plastic bottles. Clear plastic wrapping meant that people could see and handle products without contaminating them. It also kept food fresh longer and, because plastic was light, produce could be transported over long distances without spoiling or being crushed. Still, the real explosion in plastic came when takeaway food outlets took off. By then no celebrity or sports person would be seen dead in public without a plastic water bottle either.

The Global Rise of Plastic Production

-Graphic courtesy of Our World in Data

Enter the Age of Plastic - is that the Plasticene?

In the 1950s the world produced 2 million tonnes of plastic a year. Today we are producing 480 million tonnes a year and the industry is still growing at about 4% annually. Plastic also produces around 3.4% of the world’s greenhouse gases and that's set rise to 19% by 2050. Of the world’s total plastic production to date -  9.5 billion tonnes, only 9% has been recycled and the world is drowning in plastic waste.  Indeed, as the world moves away from fossil fuels as an energy source, the oil industry is pinning its hopes for future profitability on continued growth in plastic production. You can read more about that here


Plastic Use by Country and Per Capita

-Image courtesy of the Plastic Soup Foundation

What’s being done to curb the plastic tide?

As awareness of the problem has grown, so have efforts to curb the proliferation of plastic. Almost half of it (44%)  is single use plastic – the sort typically used for drink bottles, takeaway food, shopping bags, coffee cups, plastic cutlery and straws. However, whenever a country seeks to impose any constraint on this industry, it resorts to a variety of tactics very similar to those used by the tobacco industry to prevent or delay attempts to regulate it. Some typical examples follow.


Packaging - especially Single Use Packaging at 44% is by far the largest contributor to the Plastic Waste Stream


For example, when African countries such as Malawi tried to impose a ban on single use plastic bags in 2012, 14 plastic manufacturers had the ban overturned on the grounds that it interfered with their ability to do business. Fortunately for Malawi it was able to re -impose its ban in 2019.

Shifting Blame to End Users

Another tactic is shifting responsibility to consumers, for say, not recycling enough or for littering. They also blame governments and communities for not having adequate waste management systems; for not mandating more use of recycled materials; or for not subsidising collection and re -manufacturing or not providing commercial incinerators, even though these are hugely expensive and release Greenhouse Gases. [Carbon Capture has been hailed as the answer to this problem. However, despite large amounts of public and private money being spent on this, it has not yet led to significant reductions].

Some companies are getting around the EU ban on single use plastics which applies as of 2021, by making more durable, reusable plastic food and drink containers and so on, but these too will ultimately end up on the rubbish pile. 

The Failure of Self -Regulation

Promises of self -regulation are another way to postpone government action. German Broadcaster DW, found 24 large companies who were responsible for much of the world’s plastic waste and who had made commitments to use more recycled material. After following up several big brands, they found that most had failed to meet their own targets. Take Danone for instance -renown for its yoghurts and bottled water. In 2009 it promised to use 30% recycled plastic for its water bottles by 2011. By 2020 it had only achieved 19% of this target and promised to reach 100% by 2025. Other companies fared even worse. Coca Cola which had set a target of 35% and had only achieved 9% by 2020, while Nestle which had promised 25%, had only managed to reach 5%. This whole clip is worth watching. 

As we’ve seen in the previous post, this is very much the story of Recycling generally. Several environmental groups regard recycling itself as little more than Greenwashing - a marketing ploy to make companies seem as if they care about the environment, rather than actually doing much about it. Recycling would also be more effective if we had a simpler classification system such as Japan has - basically 1 = Yes, 2 = No, rather than having 7 as we do and some which look as if they have the triangle but have no number inside. Then there is the fact that only a few big cities have high temperature incinerators and most plastics, especially in rural areas, can't be recycled much at all. Another very recent study from the USA shows that despite protestations to the contrary, most single use plastic bags still wind up in landfill or being sent abroad. Why should councils and hence ratepayers have to bear the burden of disposing of these products? The practice of sending plastic waste offshore must also cease.  

Could Bioplastics Save the Day?

Similar promises are now being made with respect to using earth friendlier materials. At present only 1% of packaging is made from natural or bio -based materials. Made from things like corn or potato starch for example, or from sugarcane waste or bamboo, rather than oil, bioplastics can have a lower carbon footprint, especially if crop waste is used and they are made using renewable energy. However, groups such as Greenpeace and Plastic Soup warn that widespread adoption would mean more land being diverted from agriculture or conservation and that being made from natural substances doesn't necessarily mean that they will break down easily. See more here. Both seaweed  and fungi show promise as alternative materials because they could overcome the land problem, but these experiments are as yet in their infancy and so small in scale that they will have difficulty competing against conventional plastics for a very long time.

World in Data's  FAQs on Plastics, has a quote from a 2015 paper “the adoption of plastic products labelled as ‘biodegradable’ will not bring about a significant decrease either in the quantity of plastic entering the ocean or the risk of physical and chemical impacts on the marine environment, on the balance of current scientific evidence.” We can only hope things have improved since then.

Some things which have worked

 Bans or charges on single use plastic bags

Bans on single use plastics,  especially light weight plastic bags, have helped to reduce this type of litter which is hard to recycle and easily carried by the wind. Since the Netherlands started charging for plastic bags in 2016, this type of litter has dropped by 70%. In the UK, the results were even better with an 85% drop six months after the introduction of a 5p charge.

Bottle deposits

Germany’s bottle deposit scheme with a much higher charge built into the cost of single use plastic bottles, has served as a model for other countries including Scotland and Indonesia. Indonesia gives out bus tickets in return for bottles and I saw one clip where women were given a bank account which was credited each time they brought bottles back.

Education campaigns

In Japan, each householder gets a detailed booklet on what can be recycled in their area and how things are to be prepared for recycling. Elsewhere Clean -ups of beaches and public lands being shown on television and in newspapers, do help to create awareness as well as allowing for analysis of the main sources of rubbish with a view to eliminating them. Encouraging school children to avoid packaging by having ‘naked lunches,’ or having friendly contests between classes or schools as to who can produce the least rubbish, can be both a science lesson – sorting, weighing, measuring, record keeping for younger ones and analysis of chemicals, symbols and disposal methods, for older ones -and a useful skill for survival in the C 21st. [Tip: Supply plastic gloves and protect school uniforms!] Kids love it and chances are that they’ll go home and teach their parents and siblings. The  Plastic Soup Foundation has educational materials for adults and children about Marine Plastic Pollution.

Should we keep recycling?

Recent reports suggest that recycled plastics may be even more toxic than those made from virgin materials and that recycled bottles leach more chemicals into their contents than newly manufactured ones. This means that avoiding plastic is much more important than recycling. Buy in glass if possible and reuse rather than recycle. My hairdresser for example, buys his salon supplies in bulk and refills his own containers and he also makes his own cleaning products, but as the World in Data report notes, “ As individuals we can be limited in the magnitude of our impact. The above changes can make a contribution, but as the late David MacKay noted: “If we all do a little, we’ll only achieve a little.”……., even if all countries across Europe and North America cut out plastic use completely, global mismanaged plastic would decline by less than five percent. To drive urgent and large-scale change, arguably our most important role lies in putting pressure on governments and policy-makers to collaborate globally. See more here

Oh yes, and assuming your water is drinkable, do buy yourself a reusable water bottle. An estimated 583 billion disposable plastic ones were produced in 2021 alone. I promise that this will not only help save the planet, but save you loads of money as well. One of the quickest ways of getting a company's attention if you don't like what's happening, is to stop buying their product. I also wonder if, when councils are spending so much to dispose of plastic waste, whether it might not be cheaper all round to bring back hygienic public water fountains-i.e. with a foot pedal perhaps.



Drinking Fountains do appear to be making a bit of a comeback lately. Here's one I saw in Melbourne recently. Saw one in Hobart not long ago which had a place for dogs to drink at the bottom and a place to fill your water bottle at the top. I'll take a photo next time I pass it.

Here's another solution to the plastic milk bottle problem which may suit bulk users such as cafes.

Turning off the Plastic Tap

National or better still, international legislation creates a level playing field for all members. That way plastic producers and big users can't simply move elsewhere to avoid paying levies or offer goods at a reduced  price because they don't have to comply with onerous regulations.

In 2018 the European Union introduced its Single Use Plastic Directive (SUP) which called on all member nations to stop using things like disposable cutlery, cotton buds and straws for which alternatives were available, by July 2021. They were also required to label hygiene products with appropriate warnings about their environmental impact and to redesign others so that they can either be reused or recycled. Critics argue that the targets have been set too low, but an important feature is Detailed Producer Responsibility for clean up and information which may encourage companies to stick to their targets.

On March 2, 2022 at The United Nation’s  Environment Assembly (UNEP) 150 nations reached historic agreement to develop legally binding, enforceable policies by 2024 which should see plastic pollution cut by 80% by 2040. You can see the full text here, but below is a brief outline. Furthermore it’s making producers responsible for cutting that waste, not consumers.

Towards a more effective Plastic Treaty


The Polluter Pays Principle

Including a Polluter Pays clause would encourage companies to collaborate and find alternatives to disposable plastic.  A tax on virgin materials would make use of recycled materials - not for food or drinks, more competitive and eco - taxes and fines could pay for cleanup and better waste management systems, especially in poor countries. In the Netherlands companies which use more than 50,000 kg of plastic must pay a tax for collection and recycling. However, charges have been set too low to have a significant impact on the volume of recycling. 

Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer's Liability means that the producers of plastic would be liable for any environmental harm throughout a product’s lifecycle. It is hoped that this will lead to better design and products which can be recycled more easily.

It's definitely time the Sorcerer came back to put the plastic genie back into its bottle. Plastic makes a good servant but a bad master. Why are we using something which lasts forever for momentary convenience? While many of the above initiatives will help to reduce the impact of plastic pollution in future, that still leaves enormous quantities of plastic in the ocean and elsewhere. Many of the world's leading sorcerers and alchemists are busy working on transmuting those mountains of plastic waste into gold. I've had to go away this week, but hope to tell you about some of the more promising or novel solutions soon.