A pig forages in plastic and other pollution on the shores of Cap Haitian beach, Haiti on October 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas
A pig forages in plastic and other pollution on the shores of Cap Haitian beach, Haiti on October 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

The first plastic bag was manufactured in 1950, just a few years after the first plastic bottles became commercially available. Since then, about 8,300-million tons of plastic have been manufactured, half of which has been produced since 2005.

Only one quarter of this is still in use — and, given the small volumes that have been recycled, incinerated or turned into energy — most of the remaining four-fifths is waste.

The plastic that is not captured in landfill finds its way into nature. Some estimates suggest that the volume leaking into the ocean is the equivalent of emptying a rubbish truck into the sea every minute of every day.

The culprit is the 100-million tons — or 40% of global plastic production —  manufactured every year for packaging and other single-use applications such as cigarette filters, earbuds, sweet wrappers, coffee cup lids — and almost all become worthless rubbish after use. The rapid rise in single-use plastic consumption has left many countries unable to cope with their solid waste disposal.

Much of that rubbish finds its way into wetlands, waterways and into the sea, where it causes catastrophic damage. According to Prof Peter Ryan of the University of Cape Town’s Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, scientists have known since the 1960s that plastics are damaging to marine animals. Virtually all are at risk of being entangled in plastic waste and they ingest plastics and their associated toxic compounds.

It is impossible to extract 95% of the plastic in the ocean, so humans are also eating plastic in seafood, sea salt and bottled water. It is now a permanent feature of the food web and a toxic legacy bequeathed to future generations.

Plastic pollution in the ocean is of relevance to every country, regardless of where it originated, as ocean currents move it around the world where it floats or sinks to the sea bed. Plastic has been found from the Arctic to Antarctica and in the deepest place on earth — the Mariana Trench that is more than 10,000m below sea level.

The growth in plastics processing and manufacturing is allied to a significant growth in energy consumption. As more than 86% of SA’s energy is coal-based, this is associated with growth in greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that, at current rates of consumption, plastic production could account for 20% of total oil consumption by 2050.

Plastic has been found around Henderson Island, a tiny uninhabited speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Only 5% of plastic in the oceans is floating — what is seen on the surface is like the tip of the iceberg.

The increased use of plastic in agricultural production, including tunnels and plastic film mulch, has led to growing levels of soil and freshwater pollution. Plastics creation is one of the fastest-growing uses of fossil oils, and waste incineration releases greenhouse gases. In the future, plastics will contribute 15% of the total carbon budget to remain below the 2°C target.

The growth in plastics processing and manufacturing is allied to a significant growth in energy consumption. As more than 86% of SA’s energy is coal-based, this is associated with growth in greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that, at current rates of consumption, plastic production could account for 20% of total oil consumption by 2050.

Plastic is used for the preservation and safety of food. A cucumber in its plastic sleeve will last at least seven days in a fridge. The growth of plastic use is also twinned with expanding populations and increasing levels of consumption. The linear business models of value chains that take, make and waste has to change. Dr Philippa Notten of The Green House says a systemic approach is needed because action is required across sectors and at multiple scales.

Collaboration between stakeholders across the plastics value chain — plastic converters, brands, retailers, consumers, municipalities and waste management companies — is a prerequisite to developing the co-ordinated approaches needed for a circular economy.

If a systems view is not taken of all the possible interconnections and feedback loops, then intending to fix one thing creates another unintended consequence. Bioplastics, for example, made out of renewable, plant-based sources, is an important alternative source to petrochemical and coal derivatives for plastic but, if not managed carefully, could drive up demand for agricultural land, water and energy.

Recycling will play an important part in the circular economy. When coupled with effective collection and recycling systems, plastic is still the best material for a number of applications. However, in SA, this requires significant improvements to waste infrastructure and collection systems.

A first step is to improve municipal sorting at source, but unless there are more economically viable markets for recycled products, very little will change. The government and business have a really important role to play in creating an after-use economy for plastics. However, recycling alone will not solve the problem. The flow will not be stemmed by simply creating a new market for a waste stream.

While consumers might choose to forego a straw or a plastic shopping bag, the aisles of any retailer has the ubiquity of plastic on almost every product — because it is cheap. Until the end-of-life effects are factored into the price of plastics, brands will continue to default to it, regardless of whether it is needed or not, and the tide of plastic engulfing the planet will continue to rise.

A new approach to plastics led by government policy frameworks and expanded by businesses’ power to innovate and educate is required. Practices and policies that prompt more efficient and circular use of materials would enhance economic growth and environmental sustainability.

Plastic pollution is an opportunity to start thinking differently about economic models. While a circular economy is about closing the loop, it’s also about recognising that natural resources are finite and future economic growth will be determined by how effectively growth can be decoupled from the consumption of new resources.

There is an economic opportunity to design plastics to ensure that they can be reused, shared, repurposed and recycled. Plastic is comparatively manageable when considered alongside the larger human-induced challenges of climate change and rising inequality. A better way to do things without a huge effect on lifestyles and the economy can be conceived.

Solutions are already taking shape. An optimist might look at this problem and the gathering momentum throughout society to fix it and see a reason for hope. With collective work to quickly to resolve this problem, perhaps the skills will be honed that are urgently needed to deal with the more intractable problems of society.

• Von Bormann is the senior manager of the policy and futures unit at WWF-SA.

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