Environmentalist Duncan Stewart remembers when he encountered plastic for the first time. “My father brought it home to us when I was about seven, telling us how plastic would become a very important material.”
Now, more than 50 years later, Stewart won’t use single-use plastic containers. “Plastic is still an important material but we are producing and consuming it in an incredible unsustainable way, and plastic packaging often costs more than the item it contains.”
Stewart says that, for example, he refuses bottled water. “If someone gives me a bottle of water, I will give it back to him. I never buy single-use plastic bottles and cups, and we have a policy of not allowing single-use plastic items into our home.”
The use of plastic has increased twentyfold in the past half-century, and now nearly everyone, everywhere, every day comes into contact with plastic. If current production and consumption patterns continue, it is expected to double again in the next 20 years.
Once-off plastic packaging – which accounts for about 25 per cent of all plastic produced – is used principally because it extends the shelf life of food (arguably reducing food waste) and reduces the fuel consumption of transportation because it’s lighter than other materials.
But, with an estimated 32 per cent of plastic packaging escaping collection systems entirely, the high levels of wastage and litter from single-use plastic packaging has become a campaigning issue around the world.
Producing plastic bottles creates 100 times more greenhouse gas pollution than turning on the tap for fresh water - Trocáire
For example, many national parks in the United States now ban the sale of plastic water bottles. In 2016, the San Francisco city board banned the expanded polystyrene used for coffee cups and food packaging. Also in 2016, the French government passed a law banning all plastic cups, cutlery and plates from 2020.
In September 2016, 90 non-government organisations joined forces for the Break Free From Plastics campaign. The group claims that plastic is a human-rights issue because when sold into markets with inadequate waste management systems, it can damage local communities.
In Ireland, campaigns such as the Trócaire-led “Have you #gotthebottle” encourages young people to switch from disposable plastic bottles to reusable bottles. “Over 152 million litres of bottled water are sold every year in Ireland – most of which is in plastic packaging,” says Ellen Donnelly of Trócaire.
Producing plastic bottles creates 100 times more greenhouse gas pollution than turning on the tap for fresh water, according to the “Have you #gotthebottle” campaign. And, although this form of plastic is recyclable, these single-use plastic bottles form large parts of litter, as reported by the Dodder Action Group following its clean-up along the river in April.
The damage to marine life caused by plastic microbeads in cosmetic products and microfibres from fleeces and polyester clothing has also driven campaigns such as the UN #Clean Seas to end marine litter. According to recent estimates, more than eight million tonnes of plastic leak into the oceans each year. This is equivalent to dumping a truck of plastic into the sea every minute. It is now predicted that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish and that 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic.
Zero-waste home movement
So, what can we do to combat our high usage of plastics – some of which isn’t recyclable and more of which when recycled once is here for forever and a day?
The founder of the zero-waste home movement, Bea Johnson, says she refuses anything made from plastic and avoids its use at home completely. Here, in Ireland, we proudly initiated the first plastic bag tax in the world in 2002. Since then, many European and African countries now also ban or charge for single-use carrier bags, resulting in an over 90 per cent drop in their usage.
To really tackle the unsustainable production and consumption of plastics will require an industry-wide and/or Government-led initiative
Environmental campaigner Caitriona Rogerson carried out a survey into the amount of non-recyclable plastic packaging on fruit and vegetables in Irish supermarkets recently. “I found that between 80 and 87 per cent of fruit and vegetables were wrapped in plastics, the majority of which are non-recyclable. Only 2 per cent of 90 products surveyed were wrapped in plastics that were fully recyclable,” she explains. Rogerson set up a Facebook page, End Plastic Plague Ireland, and got 5,000 signatures on a change.org petition to ban the single use of non-recyclable plastic packaging. “We are planning a national plastic protest to encourage people to leave their plastic packaging at the check-out counters in supermarkets.”
While avoiding single-use plastic containers and leaving your plastic packaging at supermarket check-out counters will raise awareness of the issue, to really tackle the unsustainable production and consumption of plastics will require an industry-wide and/or Government-led initiative.
The United Nations Environment #CleanSeas campaign is urging governments to pass plastic-reduction policies while also targeting industry to minimise plastic packaging and redesign products.
But the groundbreaking New Plastics Economy report from the Ellen McArthur Foundation is perhaps the best source of hope. Published in 2016, it is a comprehensive analysis of what the industry must do to transform the production and consumption of plastic.
It starkly points out that if the current strong growth of plastics usage continues, the plastics sector will account for 20 per cent of the total oil consumption and 15 per cent of the global annual carbon budget by 2050.
Circular economy model
In line with the circular economy model (where materials are brought back into use as secondary resources), the Ellen McArthur Foundation wants plastics to be reused, recycled and redesigned in an economically and environmentally sound way.
Suggestions include compostable plastic packaging for organic waste from fast food outlets and canteens so that organic contents can return nutrients to the soil, and reusable dispensers for household and personal cleaning products. The foundation also proposes that recycled plastic is used to make new plastics instead of petrochemicals.
The report calls for a global protocol on plastics to reduce the use of harmful and non-recyclable plastics, to standardise labelling and improve collection, sorting and reprocessing systems. And it clearly states that the topic of plastics is coming to a head.
The key question is this: will people gradually reject plastic because of its negative effects (and forgo its benefits) or will plastic survive in reusable ways that have yet to be imagined?
Related: Read Can bio-plastics combat the scourge of plastic debris on land and sea? by Laura Quinn, winner of the junior category in the Young Reporters on the Environment 2017.