How to have yourself a plastic-free Christmas



File 20181214 185240 1txrk2j.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Paper not plastic.
Adina Habich/Shutterstock.com

Manuela Taboada, Queensland University of Technology; Glenda Amayo Caldwell, Queensland University of Technology; Hope Johnson, Queensland University of Technology; Leonie Barner, Queensland University of Technology, and Rowena Maguire, Queensland University of Technology

Research shows that waste can double during the Christmas period, and most of it is plastic from gift wrapping and packaging. The British, for example, go through more than 40 million rolls of (mostly plastic) sticky tape every year, and use enough wrapping paper to go around the Equator nine times.

We love plastic. It is an amazing material, so ubiquitous in our lives we barely notice it. Unfortunately, plastic waste has become a serious worldwide environmental and health issue. If we don’t love the idea of a planet covered in plastic waste, we urgently need to reduce our plastic consumption.

Yet old habits die hard, especially over the holiday season, when we tend to let go and indulge ourselves. Typically, people hold off until the new year to make positive changes. But you don’t have to wait – it’s easier than you might think to make small changes now that will reduce your holiday plastic waste, and maybe even start some enjoyable new traditions in your family or household.




Read more:
Five ways to spend with more social purpose this Christmas


Here is our list of suggestions to help you transform this indulgent time into a great opportunity to kickstart your plastic-free new year.

Gifts

The best option is to avoid or minimise gifts, or at least reduce them to a manageable level by suggesting a secret Santa, or a “kids-only” gift arrangement. Of course it’s hard to justify giving no gifts at all, so if you must give…

  • Make a list of presents assigned to each person before you hit the shops. This will help you avoid impulse buys, and instead make thoughtful choices.

  • Look for gifts that will help the recipient eliminate plastic waste: keep-cups, stainless steel water bottles, worm-farm kits, and so on.

  • Gift an experience, event tickets, massage, or a donation to a charity the recipient believes in.

  • Consider making gifts for the natural environment: bee hotels, possum and bird boxes, and native plants are all enjoyable ways to encourage nature.

  • Where possible, avoid buying online so as to avoid wasteful packaging.

  • Consider whether the recipient will treasure their gift or end up throwing it away. Here’s a handy flowchart, which you can also use for your own (non-Christmas) purchases.

Decisions, decisions.
Manuela Taboada, Author provided

Gift wrapping

Not only do we buy gifts, we wrap them in paper and decorate them with ribbons often made of synthetic materials. It might look fantastic, but it generates a fantastically tall mound of waste afterwards. Here’s how to wrap plastic-free in style.

  • Ditch the sticky tape and synthetic ribbons. Instead, use recycled or repurposed paper and tie up with fabric ribbons, cotton, or hemp twine.

  • Try Japanese fabric wrapping (Furoshiki). The big advantage: two gifts in one!

  • Choose gifts that do not need wrapping at all, such as the experiences, event tickets or charity donations mentioned above.

Furoshiki: sustainable and stylish.
Katorisi/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Tableware

Disposable tableware is convenient – perhaps too convenient. Plastic plates, cutlery and cups are handy if you’re hosting dozens of friends and relatives, but they are used for a minimal amount of time and are often non-recyclable. So, when setting up your table:

  • Use “real” tableware. You can easily find funky second-hand options. Mixed tableware is a trend!

  • If your dishwasher (human or mechanical) can’t handle the strain, consider a washing-up game instead. Line up the guests, time their washing, and give them a prize at the end.

  • If disposables are essential, opt for biodegradable tableware such as paper-based uncoated plates and cups, or wooden or bamboo plates and cutlery.

  • Beware of plastic options labelled as “biodegradable”. Often they are only degradable in industrial composting facilities, which are not available across most of Australia. Check your local recycling options.

Toys

Last year, tonnes of plastic waste were found on Henderson Island, one of the most remote places in the world. Among the items were Monopoly houses and squeaky ducks. Toy items are usually non-recyclable, and eventually end up in landfill or scattered throughout the environment.

  • Choose wooden or fabric-based toys. Alternatively, look for toys or games that teach children about the environment.

  • Many board games have dozens of plastic accessories, but not all. Look at the list of contents, and choose ones with less plastic.

  • It might be hard to stay away from Lego or other iconic plastic toy brands. In this case, consider buying second-hand or joining a toy library.

Packaging

This is by far the hardest item to avoid. Lots of non-plastic items come packed in plastic, including most of our food. So, simply…

  • Refuse it: find alternatives that don’t come wrapped in plastic. This might mean changing how and where you buy your food.

  • If there are no other options, choose plastic that can be recycled locally and avoid styrofoam, also called expanded polystyrene, which is not recyclable at most facilities.

  • If you are buying online, you can often ask for your items to be packed with no plastic.

  • For party food leftovers, use beeswax wraps or glass containers, or ask guests to bring their own reusable containers.




Read more:
‘I am not buying things’: why some people see ‘dumpster diving’ as the ethical way to eat


There’s a lot going on at Christmas, and it can be easier simply to follow the path of least resistance, and resolve to clean up your act in the new year. But you can avoid getting caught in consumption rituals created by the retail industry.

Make some changes now, and you can have a reduced-plastic Christmas with the same amount of (or even more) style and fun!The Conversation

Manuela Taboada, Senior Lecturer, Visual Design, Queensland University of Technology; Glenda Amayo Caldwell, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, Queensland University of Technology; Hope Johnson, Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology; Leonie Barner, Associate Professor, Queensland University of Technology, and Rowena Maguire, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why municipal waste-to-energy incineration is not the answer to NZ’s plastic waste crisis



Since the Chinese plastic recycling market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste goes to countries in South-East Asia.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Trisia Farrelly, Massey University

New Zealand is ranked the third-most-wasteful country in the OECD. New Zealanders produce five times the global daily average of waste per person – and they are getting more wasteful, producing 35% more than a decade ago.

These statistics are likely to get worse following China’s 2018 ban on imports of certain recyclable products. China was the world’s top importer of recyclable plastics, but implemented the ban because it could no longer safely manage its domestic and imported waste. Unsurprisingly, in 2015, China was named the top source of marine plastic pollution in the world.

Since the Chinese market closed, 58% of New Zealand’s plastic waste now goes to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — all countries with weak regulations and high rankings as global sources of marine plastic pollution.

Waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has been raised as a solution. While turning plastic waste into energy may sound good, it creates more pollution and delays a necessary transition to a circular economy.




Read more:
We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history


Dirty plastics

Shipments of plastic recycling often arrive in developing countries unsorted and contaminated. Materials that cannot be easily recycled are commonly burned, releasing dioxins into air, soil and water. In response, South-East Asian countries have started returning dirty plastics to developed countries.

Several New Zealand councils have stopped collecting certain plastics for recycling offshore. They are sending them to landfill instead. Available data suggest that even before the China ban plastics made up roughly 15% of the waste in municipal landfills – about 250,000 tonnes a year. Much of this is imported plastic packaging.

Many New Zealanders are very or extremely worried about the impact of plastic waste. We cannot continue ignoring our role in the global plastic pollution crisis while dumping plastic in homegrown landfills or in developing countries.




Read more:
We organised a conference for 570 people without using plastic. Here’s how it went


In the scramble to find alternatives, waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration has become a hot topic, particularly as foreign investors look to establish WtE incinerators on the West Coast and [other centres]in New Zealand. Some local government representatives have endorsed WtE proposals, or raised WtE as an election issue.

Less plastic good for climate

Like landfills, WtE incinerators symbolise the linear “take-make-waste” economy, which destroys valuable resources and perpetuates waste generation.

Globally, countries are moving to circular approaches instead, which follow the “zero waste hierarchy”. This prioritises waste prevention, reduction, reuse, recycling and composting and considers WtE unacceptable.

Some New Zealanders say Nordic countries have proven that incineration is the environmental silver bullet to our waste woes. But a recent study found these countries will not meet EU circular economy goals unless they replace WtE incineration with policies that reduce waste generation. Such policies include packaging taxes, recycling and recovery rate targets, landfill bans on biodegradable waste, deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility.

Rejecting linear approaches is also good for the climate. Actions at the top of the waste hierarchy stop more greenhouse gases than those at the bottom.

In contrast, WtE incinerators can produce 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per tonne of municipal solid waste burnt. New Zealand’s zero carbon act means we have a responsibility to ensure we do not increase our greenhouse gas emissions by investing in WtE incineration.

Incinerators also cannot magic away toxins in plastic waste. Even the most high-tech WtE incinerators [[release dioxins and other pollutants into the air]. Meanwhile, toxin-laden fly ash and slag are dumped in landfills to eventually leach into the environment and contaminate food systems.

Shifting responsibility for plastic waste

To address plastic pollution, it is easy to see how prevention and reduction work better than “getting rid of” plastic once produced. Many WtE proponents argue that incineration technology can be a temporary solution for the plastic waste we have already created.

But incinerators are not short-term fixes. They are expensive to build and maintain. Large-scale incinerators demand about 100,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste a year, encouraging increasing production of waste. Investors guarantee returns on their investment by locking councils into decades-long contracts.

The only real solution to our plastics problem is through regulation that moves New Zealand towards a circular economy. We can start by making the linear economy expensive by increasing landfill levies above the current $NZ10/tonne and expanding it to all landfills. We must also invest in better waste collection, sorting and recycling systems, including a national network of resource recovery centres.

Instead of burning or burying plastic that cannot be reused, recycled or composted, we can prevent or reduce it through targeted phase-outs. The government is proposing to regulate single-use plastic packaging, beverage packaging, electronic waste and farm plastics through mandatory product stewardship schemes. This would make manufacturers responsible for the waste they produce and provide incentives for less wasteful and toxic product design and delivery systems (e.g. refill stations).

All of these circular solutions will provide far more jobs than WtE incineration.

Without a swift, brave shift to a circular economy, New Zealand will remain one of the world’s most wasteful nations. Circular economies are developing globally and WtE incineration will only set us back by 30 years.


Hannah Blumhardt, the coordinator of the NZ Product Stewardship Council, has contributed to this article.The Conversation

Trisia Farrelly, Senior Lecturer, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Another COAG meeting, another limp swing at the waste problem


Trevor Thornton, Deakin University

A meeting on Friday between state and federal environment ministers to discuss Australia’s recycling and waste crisis has been disappointingly inconclusive.

Some targets were set for banning the export of various used materials: glass exports will be banned by July 2020 and mixed plastics by July 2021. New focus was put on managing other waste, such as batteries and tyres.




Read more:
Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore


Other actions agreed upon include:

  • an 80% recovery rate of material across all waste streams,
  • significant increases to government procurement of recycled materials, and
  • halving the amount of organic waste sent to landfill.

So, not all doom and gloom.

But it was reasonable to expect this meeting to deliver more concrete strategies. We have known since 2013 China would stop accepting low-quality rubbish imports; the time has well and truly come for real action.

Inquiry upon inquiry upon…

In 2018 the commonwealth, state and local governments came together to agree to a National Waste Policy.

Providing 14 strategies, it was expected specific detail on actual targets and implementation schedules would follow.

Moving forward, at a December 2018 meeting of environment ministers another set of actions was agreed upon, again with an understanding that detail on implementation and targets would be developed.




Read more:
How recycling is actually sorted, and why Australia is quite bad at it


Following another COAG meeting in August 2019 Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the export of recyclables would be banned as “soon as possible”. In Tuvalu for the Pacific Islands Forum later that month, Morrison made a commitment to “attack waste in the South Pacific”.

And in October this year the commonwealth government announced an inquiry into Australia’s waste management and recycling industries.

The states and councils are acting

So are we really any closer to solving the waste and recycling problem?

There has been some commendable efforts by state and local governments. Victoria currently has a number of inquiries, reviews and reports underway into improving recycling and waste management.




Read more:
The ‘recycling crisis’ may be here to stay


South Australia had a task force to advise the government on legislation to phase out single-use plastics. Queensland has similarly released a plastic pollution reduction plan.

In addition, councils are looking at a variety of schemes to better manage waste. Yarra Council is providing an extra bin for glass, for example, and Ballarat has banned it from the household recycling stream.

While each plan has been well thought out by the councils, the main issue is the lack of consistency. When someone is visiting or moves across council lines, they may inadvertently contaminate recycling streams by simply doing what they would when at their own home.

Better options do exist

A recent draft report from Infrastructure Victoria provided a range of options for improving waste and recycling management. These options were provided to (among other reasons) promote discussion as to what could be the preferred options.

This draft report covered the many areas that could be improved – such as the processing sector, use of recycled materials, waste to energy, organics management and so on. Yet the one proposal that received media attention was the suggestion that households have six bins for sorting waste and recyclables.




Read more:
Recycling plastic bottles is good, but reusing them is better


After all these inquiries, meetings and recommended actions by the various levels of government, where are we at? Recyclables are still going to landfill, many in the community are still confused as to how to correctly sort waste and recyclables, and the issue of contamination has not been resolved.

It was hoped this November meeting would finally result in specific actions and detailed solutions.

Where are the commitments to waste avoidance and reduction initiatives? What about community education to reduce contamination? Or a way to ensure consistency within and across the states and territories?

Education is vital for reducing the inappropriate mixing of recycled materials. Yet very little has been done, excluding some sterling efforts by local councils. This is an easy and relatively cheap action. It is very difficult to understand why we don’t, for example, see national TV ads indicating correct recycling.

There is also compelling evidence container deposit schemes are effective and can significantly reduce ocean plastic.

Finally, as the industry peak body has said, the ultimate issue is the lack of sophisticated reprocessing and manufacturing facilities in Australia to handle paper and plastic recyclables domestically.




Read more:
Deposit schemes reduce drink containers in the ocean by 40%


So now we await the next environment ministers meeting, scheduled for early 2020, for more detail on schedules and implementation.

Perhaps we should just settle back, take a deep breath, and keep doing what we’re doing. More band-aid solutions may only create greater confusion, and ultimately fail to reduce waste or increase proper recycling.The Conversation

Trevor Thornton, Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Recycling plastic bottles is good, but reusing them is better


Rachael Wakefield-Rann, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Monash University, and Nick Florin, University of Technology Sydney

Last week Woolworths announced a new food delivery system, in collaboration with US company TerraCycle, that delivers grocery essentials in reusable packaging.

The system, called Loop, lets shoppers buy products from common supermarket brands in reusable packaging.

As Australia works out how to meet the national packaging target for 100% of Australian packaging to be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025, programs like this offer an opportunity to overhaul how plastic packaging is produced, used and recycled.




Read more:
Here’s what happens to our plastic recycling when it goes offshore


Recycling alone is not the silver bullet

Plastic packaging, most of which is for food and beverages, is the fastest growing category of plastic use.

In Australia less than 10% of this plastic packaging is recycled, compared with 70% for paper and cardboard packaging.

Of the seven categories of plastic, recycling of water bottles (PET) and milk bottles (HDPA) is most effective, yet recycling rates remain relatively low, around 30%.

Other hard plastics (PVC, PS) and soft or flexible plastics, such as clingfilm and plastic bags, present significant challenges for recyclers. In the case of soft plastics, although recycling options are available, the use of additives known as plasticisers – used to make the hard plastic soft and malleable – often make products recycled out of soft plastics weak, non-durable, and unable to be recycled further.

Some researchers argue recycling actually represents a downgrading process, as plastic packaging is not always recycled into new packaging, owing to contamination or diminished quality.




Read more:
We can’t recycle our way to ‘zero waste’


Even where single-use plastic packaging can be effectively recycled, it often isn’t. The more single-use plastics that are produced, the higher the chance they will enter the ocean and other environments where their plasticiser chemicals leach out, harming wildlife populations and the humans who depend on them.

Zero Waste Europe recently updated its Waste Hierarchy to emphasise avoiding packaging in the first instance, and to encourage reuse over recycling.

The zero waste hierarchy for a circular economy.
Zero Waste Europe

Getting reuse right

For a reusable product to be more environmentally sustainable than a single-use product, it must promote the use of less energy and resources in our daily routines.

Although the uptake of products such as reusable cups and shopping bags have increased, these types of reusable items have attracted criticism. If used correctly, these products represent a positive change. However, some research suggests these products can be less sustainable than the single-use items they are replacing if people treat them like disposable items and do not reuse them enough.

For example, if you regularly buy new reusable bags at the supermarket, that potentially has a greater environmental impact than using “single-use” plastic bags.

To really reduce plastic packaging, we need to find ways to alter the routines that involve plastic packaging, rather than directly substituting individual products (such as reusable bags for single-use ones).

Developing new reusable packaging systems

Redesigning ubiquitous plastic packaging means understanding why it is so useful. For food packaging, its functions might include:

  1. allowing food to travel from producer to consumer while maintaining its freshness and form

  2. enabling the food to be kept on a shelf for an extended period of time without becoming inedible

  3. allowing the brand to display various nutritional information, branding and other product claims.

So how might these functions be met without disposable plastic packaging?

TerraCycle Loop, the business model that Woolworths has announced it will partner with, is currently also trialling services in the United States and France. They have partnered with postal services and large food and personal care brands including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Nestlé, Mars, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo.

Customers order products online, from ice-cream to juice and shampoo, with a small container deposit. These items are delivered to their house, and collected again with the next delivery. The containers are washed and taken back to the manufacturers for refill. The major participating brands have all redesigned their packaging to participate in the program.

TerraCycle Loop reusable packaging.
TerraCycle Loop

This model works because it is not replacing products one-for-one, but creating a new product system to allow people to easily integrate reuse into their daily routines.

We can examine the function of single use plastic packaging in takeaway food in a similar way. The purpose of takeaway food packaging is to let us enjoy a meal at home or on the move without having to cook it ourselves or sit in a restaurant. So how might these functions be achieved without disposable packaging?

Australian company RETURNR has addressed this with a system in which cafes partner with food delivery services. Customers buy food in a RETURNR container, pay a deposit with the cost of their meal, and then return the container to any cafe in the network.

The Kickstarter campaign Zero Co, is offering a similar model for a resuse service that covers kitchen, laundry and bathroom products.

Making reuse easy and convenient is crucial to the success of these systems.




Read more:
China’s recycling ‘ban’ throws Australia into a very messy waste crisis


If Australia is to meet our national packaging targets, we need to prioritise the elimination of unnecessary packaging. Although recycling is likely to remain crucial to keeping plastic waste out of landfill in the near future, it should only be pursued when options higher up the waste hierarchy – such as reuse – have been ruled out.The Conversation

Rachael Wakefield-Rann, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Research Fellow, BehaviourWorks Australia (Monash Sustainable Development Institute), Monash University, and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Stop shaming and start empowering: advertisers must rethink their plastic waste message



A woman sorts plastic bottles at a workshop in Hanoi. The world is being overwhelmed by plastic waste, and companies should do more to address it.
EPA/LUONG THAI LINH

Sergio Brodsky, RMIT University

Discussion of the environment is embedded in our culture as public awareness over issues such as climate change and plastic pollution has grown. Advertisers are not shy about tapping into this concern for their own benefit.

A Twitter analysis last year revealed that in the UK at least, the environment was a current and growing issue. Between January 2015 and March 2018, discussion on Twitter about single-use plastic, for example, increased by an incredible 5,543%.

Advertisers are already highly skilled at the power of narrative: reducing complexity and helping us make sense of their message. This power is amplified when the narrative taps into culture. A brand message, if successful, then becomes part of people’s conversations rather than interrupting them with ads they don’t care about.




Read more:
Here is a global solution to the plastic waste crisis – and A$443 million to get it started


Advertisers who tell a good story can persuade the public of all sorts of things. Some messages are positive and constructive. But a few are disingenuous and misleading.

The latter is especially true in the case of recycling, where advertisers often imply that consumers, not corporations, are responsible for the huge amounts of plastic waste a product creates.

A CocaCola recycling campaign that ran in the 2019 European summer.
Supplied by author

Plastic pollution is a big deal

Australia’s National Waste Report last year found 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in 2016-17 – or 103kg for each person. Most of it was only used once, and just 12% was recycled.

Coca-Cola says by the end of 2019, 70% of its plastic bottles in Australia will be made entirely from recycled plastic. The company in August released a video in Australia thanking people for recycling.




Read more:
We organised a conference for 570 people without using plastic. Here’s how it went


It follows a European campaign launched by the company in June with the tagline “Don’t buy Coca-Cola if you’re not going to help us recycle”.

Absolut Vodka this year launched a new limited edition bottle made of 41% recycled glass – like all of its bottles – accompanied by a “Guide to a Circular Living Together”. The company told customers: “Now’s your time to shine on stage – rocking the recycling lifestyle as a true #RecyclingHero!”

Coca-Cola Australia | Thanks For Recycling Campaign, 2019.

On the face of it, such campaigns might seem virtuous, especially following China’s 2018 policy limiting the import of low-quality mixed recyclables. But in fact they continue a long history of framing consumers as the main waste culprits.

The practice began in the US in the 1950s when Keep America Beautiful was formed. The non-profit consortium included Coca-Cola and tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris, among others. Its campaigns, such as the 1971 “Crying Indian” ad, tapped into a shared cultural guilt for polluting the environment and, in this case, mistreating native people.

Such tactics have been mirrored by Keep Australia Beautiful campaigns.

But guilt is not a good predictor of people’s behaviour. A 2001 study found individuals must feel ethically validated, not guilty, to behave in an environmentally friendly way.

Consumers are not the villains

Manufacturers of consumer products obviously play a major role in the growing plastic problem. This is reflected in the Australian Packaging Covenant, an agreement between government and industry.

It says responsibility for packaging should be shared by companies throughout the supply chain. Consumers, waste service providers, recyclers and governments also have roles to play.




Read more:
Indonesia has sent Australia’s recycling home – it’s time to clean up our act


Researchers have noted that a permissive legal framework has allowed plastic pollution to rise despite the obvious harm it causes to communities and marine life.

As Recycled Plastics Australia general manager Stephen Scherer told the ABC this year:

…the federal government has been absent from the conversation about waste, while Australians are operating in a culture where ‘we don’t do what we’re not forced to do’.

Plastic waste is on the radar of Australian governments. State and federal environment ministers last year set a target that all packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025 or earlier.

But critics say rather than set targets, the federal government must mandate the use of recycled plastic in packaging to ensure the waste problem is addressed.

Fish swimming along a coral reef near a water bottle label and a plastic bag off the coast of the Red Sea resort town of Naama Bay, Egypt.
Mike Nelson/EPA

Recycling campaigns done right

Companies such as Coca-Cola are embracing the concept of sustainability to some extent. But better still, other brands have sought to fix recycling systems themselves.

In February Unilever “paid” people in Buenos Aires, Argentina for their household recyclables with discount coupons redeemable against its products at selected retailers.

In the UK, Burger King last month announced it was scrapping plastic toys from kids’ meals and invited the public to bring in old plastic toys from any restaurant meal. The plastic will be remade into “interactive play opportunities” for families at their restaurants.

In Australia, superannuation fund Australian Ethical ran its latest campaign on 100% recyclable billboard skins.

Consumers do have a role to play in waste reduction, including by recycling or demanding that companies find alternatives to single-use plastics. But if companies want to respond meaningfully to the plastic crisis, they must accept ultimate responsibility for their packaging and work towards zero-waste.The Conversation

Sergio Brodsky, Sessional Lecturer, Marketing, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Here is a global solution to the plastic waste crisis – and A$443 million to get it started



Informal settlments line a plastic-choked river in Manila, Philippines.
newsinfo.inquirer.net

Andrew Forrest, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia

Since the mass production of plastic began, almost six billion tonnes of it – approximately 91% – has remained in our air, land and water. Plastic production and use is embedded in the global economy, and in our natural environment. This culture of waste is clearly perilous and unsustainable.

Our paper, published today in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, argues that only a global, market-driven intervention can stop the plastic tide.

It is backed by a commitment by the Minderoo Foundation, chaired by the lead author, of up to US$300 million (A$443 million) to help establish the scheme and ensure its integrity.

The paper argues that the intervention – a voluntary financial contribution paid by global manufacturers of fossil fuel-based plastic – would drive a system-wide transition to recycled plastic. Our modelling shows that this would lead to a dramatic slowdown in the production of new plastic – creating huge benefits for marine life and human health.

We must turn off the tap

Plastic takes so long to break down that every piece produced since its inception in 1856 still exists today, except the small share we’ve burned into poisonous gases.

Many strategies to address the plastic problem have been proposed to date, and efforts have been commendable. But we are bailing out a bathtub with a thimble – while the tap is running.

We have identified a simple solution: a voluntary industry contribution for new fossil fuel-based plastic production.

We believe this technical and financial initiative would level the playing field by making recycled plastic more competitively priced, establishing the right market conditions for a circular plastics economy.

We know from our discussions with industry that this would release technology, in particular chemical or ‘polymer-to-polymer’ recycling, that is proven today but cannot yet compete economically with new fossil fuel-derived plastic. Increased demand from recyclers would transform plastic waste into a commodity, driving plastic recovery and creating incentives for industry to invest and transition. This is already true for materials like aluminium cans, which are highly recycled because the metal has an inherent value.

Ascension Island is thousands of miles from land, yet even there oceanic wildlife can’t escape plastic waste.
University of Western Australia – Marine Futures Lab / Ascension Island Government

By mobilising new technology to increase recycling rates, plastic flows to the ocean and the broader environment would slow, and hopefully cease altogether. A circular plastics economy would also significantly reduce carbon emissions created through new plastic production.




Read more:
Plastic warms the planet twice as much as aviation – here’s how to make it climate-friendly


Our relationship with plastic is broken

The vast majority of plastics produced to date are derived from fossil fuels. Plastics are made from polymers – long molecular chains comprising smaller carbon-based molecules. Oil and gas are the cheapest materials from which to produce raw polymer resin. This resin is then made into plastic by adding dyes, plasticizers and other chemicals.

Fossil fuel-based plastic has countless uses and is produced very cheaply. Plastic recycling has largely been overlooked because, in the developed world at least, our waste is carted away from our homes and often shipped overseas. This leaves little incentive to tackle our plastic addiction.

But our “out of sight, out of mind” mentality cannot persist.

In 2017, China banned imports of 24 types of solid waste, mainly plastics. This revealed the extent to which developed countries had been sending their waste problem elsewhere. In Australia this led to recyclables being stockpiled, landfilled or sent to countries ill-equipped to handle them.




Read more:
China bans foreign waste – but what will happen to the world’s recycling?


Media coverage is also increasingly highlighting the environmental impact of our throwaway culture: plastic washed up on beaches, filling the guts of endangered marine animals and accumulating en masse in circular ocean currents.

This is an abhorrent market failure, which conservatively costs US$ 2.2 trillion (A$3.25 trillion) each year in environmental and socioeconomic damages not taken into account by business or the consumer.

A turtle with a plastic bag fragment in its mouth. Plastic waste in the world’s oceans is devastating some marine life.
Melbourne Zoo

The Sea The Future initiative

We propose an initiative led by global manufacturers in which they make a voluntary financial contribution for each unit of new fossil fuel-based plastic produced. We have dubbed the initiative “Sea The Future”.

Placing a value on plastic both drives its collection and diverts new production away from fossil fuels. The contribution, estimated in our paper as averaging US$500 (A$738) per tonne, would be key to encouraging the small number of global resin producers to choose recycled plastic over fossil fuel as their raw material.

The cost would be passed onto consumers via trillions of individual plastic items. The impact would be negligible – say, a few cents on a cup of coffee – and so is likely to gain broad public acceptance.

Anticipating the concerns of regulators that such a move could be perceived as anti-competitive, the lead author has engaged with global law firms to ensure that the initiative is compatible with free market competition law in countries across the world.

The contribution turns plastic waste into a cashable commodity, feeding the circular economy.

The estimated US$20 billion (A$29.5 billion) per year raised through the initiative would be used to help establish recycling infrastructure, aid industry transition and remediate the environment. Increased demand and a higher price for recycled material also promises to significantly improve the livelihoods of waste pickers – hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who currently carve meagre earnings from collecting plastic.




Read more:
The small hands of Moroccan recycling


The funds would be administered by a self-regulated global industry body, independently audited to ensure performance, accountability and transparency. To address concerns over governance costs, the Minderoo Foundation has committed to underwrite up to five years’ worth of audit fees totalling US$260 million (A$384 million), plus cover US$40 million (A$59 million) in start-up costs, subject to appropriate conditions.

The future is circular

Public pressure is mounting for action on plastics – and what is bad for the planet is ultimately bad for business. The alternatives to an industry-led approach are less appealing. Plastic bans deny us a useful product upon which our economies rely; taxes typically go directly to general revenue and are unlikely to be applied to plastic waste management. So, tax-derived funds are seldom transferred between nations, ignoring the transboundary nature of plastic pollution.

Our global discussions with companies throughout the plastics supply chain have revealed that the vast majority recognise the need to move away from a linear plastics economy. They also understand that a global, market-based mechanism is the only path to achieving the system-wide transformation required.

Society discards over 250 million tonnes of valuable polymer, worth at least a US$ 1,000 per tonne recycled, in plastic waste each year. Soon, if we do nothing, that could grow to 500 million tonnes per annum. What industry would allow half a trillion US dollars of waste each year? Recovering it is simply good business for the environment.The Conversation

Andrew Forrest, PhD Candidate, University of Western Australia; David Tickler, PhD Candidate in Marine Ecology, University of Western Australia, and Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.