Our indispensable problem: the paradox of modern plastics

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(Tanvi Sharma, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Jim Fitterling, Chief Executive Officer, Dow


  • Plastics have brought enormous benefits along with enormous challenges.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of plastic waste.
  • To tackle it will require a multi-pronged, circular economy-based response.

Here’s an environmental riddle: When is the plastic waste issue not a plastic waste issue? Answer: When it’s also a carbon and climate change issue, a social issue, and a circular economy issue.

That’s the vexing problem we face as we continue reducing plastic waste, especially the plastic waste in our oceans. It’s not a stand-alone topic. It’s intertwined with other critical environmental, social and economic topics. And if we’re going to make real progress toward one of them, we must make progress toward all of them.

 

We don’t have the luxury to pick an environmental issue to work on. In this case, it’s a “check all boxes above” exercise.

That’s not an easy path. Consider the paradox of modern plastics.

The paradox of plastic

Plastics are an indispensable part of our economic growth and a vital part of our journey toward a lower-carbon future. Since 2004, for example, automobile fuel efficiency has climbed 29% while related greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 23%. Plastics have played a huge part in that success by providing lightweight and durable alternatives to heavier materials such as steel.

The environmental cost of plastic alternatives, for instance, is 3.8 times higher than plastic itself. That’s one reason plastics are the preferred packaging choice for so many globally traded goods.

Plastics provide the world’s growing population with more access to fresh foods, safe drinking water and medicines while at the same time reducing food spoilage and waste. That translates directly into lower carbon emissions in the supply chain, plus a better and healthier quality of life for billions of people.

But here’s the negative side of that success. For all the positives plastics add to society, they are also at the heart of a global tragedy and are undeniably harming our earth’s bio systems.

As much as 8 million metric tons of plastic waste reaches our oceans every year. And it’s estimated that only 9% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled. Recycling just one metric ton of plastic could reduce emissions by 1.1-3 tonnes of CO2 equivalents when compared to virgin plastic production.

This linear “take-make-waste” attitude is also highly inefficient from a systems standpoint. The amount of plastic wasted has an inherent value ranging from $80-120 billion annually.

Solving the riddle

So how do we solve the riddle of plastics? How do we continue using plastics to fuel a growing low-carbon economy while also ensuring we don’t lose its value as harmful waste or harm the environment?

The short, simple answer is to adopt a circular economy mindset that closes the loop on end-of-life resources and allows us to recover and reuse it as efficiently as possible.

The slightly longer and more complex answer is ensuring our circular economy has built-in dual horizons: one near-horizon that allows us to capture significant wins in the near term, and a second long-term horizon that promotes investments for breakthrough technologies that would decouple raw material consumption and carbon emissions from economic growth.

Solutions in the near term

There is a lot we can do right now to help close the loop on plastic waste and make significant progress on carbon reductions.

Around 80% of ocean plastic, for example, comes from land-based sources. Incredibly, just 10 rivers – mostly in SE Asia – carry 90% of that to the oceans. These locations suffer from a severe lack of infrastructure that would enable the solid waste to be captured before it reaches the rivers and oceans.

Rapid population and economic growth have outpaced waste management. Today, more than 3 billion people worldwide have no access to proper waste disposal facilities. In fact, more than 70% of all waste in these regions ends up in open dumps.

Investments in infrastructure for collecting plastic before it reaches the environment is a critical first step. Organizations are developing the necessary financial and social models to make this happen, investing in proof-of-concept projects to drastically improve waste collection.

Additionally, we must have facilities and technologies that allow us to economically recycle and reuse this new valuable materials stream. Many companies have already developed innovative applications for recycled plastic – in roads and building materials – that just a few years ago would have been impossible. Plus, the technology exists today to recycle all plastics back into their original molecules. The struggle is to scale up these developments economically.

Another near-term horizon is ensuring we design in success at the very beginning. Materials science companies have committed themselves to this challenge … but haven’t fully delivered yet. We must take a life-cycle view of our products and focus aggressively on designing products that are economically viable for recycling AND have the lowest environmental impact through their lifecycle. That must include incorporating carbon emissions into the equation.

None of this is easy. But it can and is being done with a focus on stemming the tide of plastic – and carbon – released into the environment.

Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Long-term horizon – long-term commitment

The more difficult prospect is arguably at the front end of the circular economy: production. To truly decouple carbon emissions from growth, we need new production technologies. Despite significant investments, however, manufacturing does not yet have low-carbon abatement options to significantly reduce emissions at the front end of the process.

Companies are employing a wide-range of options – renewable energy and bio-based feedstocks, for example – to help break this dynamic. These bridging technologies will enable a transition until real step-change breakthroughs are developed, which are at least a decade away.

That’s why a “check all boxes above” approach is the only answer to this riddle. There isn’t simply one solution. To make significant progress toward a low-carbon future – one that protects our oceans from plastic and our environment from greenhouse gas emissions – we’ll need multiple solutions based on a dual horizons approach.

With the world set to add another two billion people between now and 2050, we must make the most informed, sustainable decisions today to ensure we have clean water and safe food tomorrow.

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