The plastic pollution crisis has rapidly become one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Affecting both developed and developing nations alike, the problem is ubiquitous. Furthermore, with plastic production still on an upward trajectory, it’s easy to assume that this persistent issue is incurable.
Ever since the dawn of mass-produced plastics in the 1950s, global plastic production has soared to new – and indeed scary – heights: today, over 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually. The United Nations predicts that, if this trajectory continues, this figure will skyrocket to an unprecedented 1.1 billion tonnes by 2050. The central problem of plastic production is the predominance of single-use plastics —items that are used briefly before being discarded, never to be used again or recycled. Annually, around 8 million tonnes of these plastics find their way into oceans via rivers and lakes, causing extensive damage on marine ecosystems. For instance, millions of marine organisms and birds are killed each year due to entanglements in plastic products. Another concern are microplastics, minute fragments of plastics that shred into infinitesimally small pieces but never fully disappear. Within a few years of their discovery, microplastics began to be found in the guts of marine organisms such as shellfish and were also found to block vital tubes in the lungs and other organs. This immediately raised the issue that humans themselves could be affected by consuming contaminated seafood. Compounded with this discovery was another one that found microplastics could also enter humans through the inhalation of plastic fibres floating in the air.
Despite the daunting scale of the issue, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Some countries are enforcing bold legislative steps to curb plastic use. Among such nations, Kenya stands out for its stringent laws which have meant that harmful single-use plastics have been banned altogether. Violators – either those producing single-use plastics or those in their possession – may face imprisonment or hefty fines of up to $3000. This hard-line approach came about due to the devastating environmental impacts of plastic pollution on Kenya’s natural environment. Additionally, taxes have been enacted on plastic bags, straws, and other single-use plastic products to incentivise large corporations to reduce their reliance on plastic and encourage efforts to diversify to other materials. Some companies, such as Evian, are independently setting ambitious goals: notably, Evian pledged their commitment to produce all their bottles from recycled plastic by 2025. Yet not all companies have been willing to make these pledges and Evian’s commitment to a sustainable future is far from universal. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé have consistently ranked among the top plastic polluters globally and show no signs of changing their approach, whilst other companies have made empty promises. Additionally, for many businesses, it is still not a priority. For instance, many American pension funds are actively avoiding all asset management firms that they suspect of compromising returns for environmental policy. There is no obvious solution to the crisis, but reducing the production of single-use plastics by urging companies to consider the environmental ramifications of their production seems to be the most effective.
Enhanced recycling remains another solution to the problem. With global recycling rates for plastics still very low, the potential of recycling is yet to be fully realized. Most of our waste ends up in landfills, incineration, or is released into the environment. Inadequate waste management is still prevalent in much of the developing world, which sadly lacks the proper infrastructure and financial means to dispose of their waste effectively, exacerbating the problem. In addition, many communities argue that there are more urgent and pressing issues than recycling, leaving little extra money to pursue such initiatives. However, an increasing number of community-led environmental initiatives are gaining traction. On the other hand, developed nations do not have a perfect record when it comes to recycling either. By outsourcing much of their waste to nations ill-equipped to handle it, they increase the burden on these countries. To make a significant impact, we must prioritize collaboration between nations on the issue, taking collective responsibility for solving it. Furthermore, the circular economy approach is gaining traction—this is a complex model for society in which recycling, and reuse play central roles. Currently, we tend to throw away products only to extract further resources for their replacement, a dangerous spiral that the circular economy approach aims to change.
Innovation is vital part of reducing our reliance on plastics and reducing our current plastic production. Innovation may concentrate on waste prevention and management, alternative materials or on engaging society. All these areas are of equal importance and in equal need of innovation. Many innovations have focused on discovering alternative materials to plastic. From ideas such as plant-based biodegradable packaging derived from organic materials such as wood pulp and even agricultural waste to point-based recycling systems, there has been no shortage of ideas. Spearheaded by Unilever, a consumer goods giant, the concept of refillables is particularly interesting. By establishing in-store refill stations in Indonesia, consumers can top up on products such as soap in reusable containers.
In conclusion, while plastic is still ubiquitous in our society, it’s crucial to challenge its prevalence through creative new innovations. The plastic pollution crisis is overwhelming in its magnitude and will require bold solutions to address it. A multifaceted approach combining sustainable waste management practices with innovations, and collaborative efforts between nations, industries, and individuals is the route we must take. Only through such action can we curb the plastic waste crisis.