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Stemming The Plastic Tide - 4 What to do with those Mountains of Plastic Waste


A plastic waste pile in Malaysi
Source: Nandakumar S. Haridas, Greenpeace.

The second Conference of the Global Treaty to Reduce Plastic Pollution by 80% by 2040 was held in Paris this week. Unfortunately, the conference was largely dominated by industry representatives, its parents i.e. members of the oil and Petro -chemical industries and their lobbyists, leaving little room for scientists, environmentalists and representatives of low -incomes countries which are most affected by the existing mountains of plastic. However, the report “Turning off the Tap” provides waypoints for achieving better outcomes in future. This involves a staggered phase -out of single use plastics and a shift to reuse, refilling and recycling and a switch to using more genuinely biodegradable or reusable material. Nor may waste be shipped to countries without capacity to manage it. You can read the highlights here or download the full report. Countries must take a united stand on this or they will be left with the worst kinds of plastic waste.

As far as ‘legacy’ plastic waste goes, that is, the around 4,900 million metric tonnes already in the environment, in landfills and in our oceans, there is only limited prescription. For low -income and middle -income countries which can’t afford expensive recycling systems or state of the art high temperature incinerators, the recommendations are that there should be no more open incineration, better waste management, stabilising and covering landfills, erecting river barriers, and preventing microplastics from leaching out. As a last resort, it recommends burning plastic in cement kilns which most countries have because they release 20% less Greenhouse Gases than open burning, but still 50 – 150% more than recycling. For the most part it recommends ‘palliative care’ until we think of something better.

 Novel Solutions

Meanwhile scientists and others around the world are working to find solutions. Among the more novel experiments are fungi that eat polyurethane (see below), plastic eating worms, harnessing bacteria  or enzymes or other ways to break plastic down or finding new uses for what is now a waste product. A few examples follow.

Fungi for polyurethane

Plastic Eating Superworms



French Company Carbios and Indorama Ventures of Thailand are building a commercial recycling plant  in France which will use enzymes to recycle 2 billion PET bottles a year. That sounds impressive until you realise that 480 billion such plastic bottles are sold each year – 1 million every minute

While all these technologies offer some promise in future, it will be a long time before they can be scaled up sufficiently and have much  effect. I’m personally very wary of releasing novel organisms into the environment. What effect will they have on other species? What if they are too effective and the whole world ends up being covered in fungi or mealworms or the beetles that hatch from them? Will they inherit the earth? [The accidental or deliberate release of foreign organisms such as the modified E.coli now being trialled to make biodegradable foams for car seats and sofas, is the stuff of sci-fi horror movies]. More seriously though, it also means that the embodied energy in plastic waste– the oil and energy used to make the plastic in the first place, would then be lost.

Conversion to other products such as brick and tile manufacturing, use in construction and concrete making or making durable boats for fishing communities such as the one below in Kenya are other options, but these are merely a drop in the ocean.

 Practical Solutions

While recycling is preferable, it seems to me, that if the Plastics Treaty follows the desired trajectory- that is, an 80% reduction in production of new plastic by 2040, then countries reliant upon plastic waste for heating and much of their energy, as many Nordic countries are, should be importing this accumulated waste. Sweden is already having to import waste from Norway, much to Norway’s chagrin, since it is unable to offer the higher prices that Sweden is. If the economics don’t presently stack up, then that is something that should be explored. 

A legacy plastic charge as proposed by Ghana upon manufacturers who have been reaping all the profits while leaving the world to clean up the mess, is one possibility. Consider it a form of Polluter Pays principle or of Extended Producer Liability. If these costs were added to the price of new plastic, it would be less likely to compete with recycled product. Obviously plastics manufacturers would prefer weak legislation and to offload financial responsibility onto governments, via subsidies for recycling, tax breaks, plastic credits (like carbon credits) or some other mechanism and indeed there is some argument which could be made for a levy upon consuming countries in proportion to their use of disposable products – as in the graphic below, since they have enjoyed the temporary convenience, the benefit of jobs or low -cost products or the boost to their economy without regard for the consequences. It would also save governments around $70 billion per year, create new business opportunities and create employment, particularly among the world's poorest people. Read more in the Report.

It should also extend to those piles of used clothing, much of it synthetic, which have been shipped to low -income countries such as Africa and Chile. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation 35% of microfibres in the environment are attributable to the clothing industry.


Should return shipping prove prohibitive, either financially and environmentally – shipping is only now starting to attract attention for its massive contribution to CO2 emissions and pollution -  then instead of advocating for as yet commercially unviable Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, we should be pushing for small modular recycling plants and small modular gasification and pyrolysis units which could convert those mountains of rubbish into energy or other usable products, rather than destroying our farmland or scouring our wild places for the last drops of oil or gas. 

A process developed in Australia (below) could fit that bill and result in more easily transportable products or cheap sources of energy for those communities where the most plastic waste has accumulated but which do not have the means to process them themselves. An Indian company has also developed a closed system for  pryrolysis and chemical recycling  which reduces plastic to its constituent parts such as oil. Although this is another useful technology, there are also downsides if not properly done.

The Special Problem of Ocean Pollution

The ocean has been described as the world's largest landfill. While any of the above techniques would make plastic waste a sought -after material and gradually reduce stockpiles and visible pollution, two kinds will remain problematic. The first is ocean plastics. While booms and interceptors can capture surface plastic, they can’t remove it far below the surface and they can cause harm to  marine life. It’s true that robots can penetrate further, but again, their capacity to retrieve is small, especially given that subsurface plastic fragments, microplastics - the result of plastic being broken down by sea water and sunlight, nurdles – the precursors to plastic products, and the even smaller particles called nano-particles which collectively make up the ‘plastic soup,’ extend as far as the Marinara Trench, the deepest place in the ocean. Recent research from Australia shows that that there are some 14 million tonnes of microplastic on the sea floor. The second big problem is getting those same plastic particles out of our air, soil and food. What impact the ingestion of 50,000 plastic particles a year will have on our bodies, has yet to be firmly established.

That’s not to denigrate efforts such as those by TeamSeas or the Plastic Soup Foundation  or others who do beach and river clean-ups. These are necessary too, but reducing the sheer volume of plastic in use and preventing the  5 -12 million tonnes of plastics from entering waterways each year must be the highest priority as is consultation with local communities. Find out more here

To end on a more positive note, the issue of ‘ghost gear’- abandoned fishing gear and marine plastic, has found at least one solution. Fishermen all around the Baltic, in the UK, Scotland and Ireland are participating in a scheme called Fishing for Litter run by KIMO a Baltic and North Atlantic Ocean protection organisation. Bags are provided for fishermen into which they put waste found in nets and these are then put into skips in designated ports. Other countries, particularly in the EU, are insisting on Extended Manufacturer Responsibility for fishing gear. Sweden is the first country to translate this into legislation.

 Here's another great idea from Denmark (Norway apparently has something similar) for getting those beaches and rivers cleaned up.

The Ancient Egyptians left us their pyramids as a legacy of their culture. Will ours be mountains of plastic?