With the recent heavy rains in KZN, the Umgeni once again burst its banks transporting tonnes of plastic and debris out to sea. Some of it, due to large swells, has been spread across kilometers of beach whilst the rest has contributed to the grim statistic that by 2048 there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. With cleanup efforts yet to launch, due to a city locked down by the flooding, Zag thought it necessary to once again bring up the issue of plastic and its place in society and the environment with a slightly different focus.
We have long known that plastic in landfills and oceans is a growing environmental risk with far-reaching implications. Slowly, society has begun to understand that plastic is a threat to public health through its accumulation in the environment. The industries that produce single-use plastic tend to be quite happy to shift responsibility onto us, the consumers, but to be fair recycling is altogether futile when billions are being invested in increasing the output of single-use plastics.
In 1950 the world produced only 2 million tonnes of plastic per year. By 2015, annual production had increased to 381 million tonnes. Of this ridiculous amount, almost half of the plastic of the world being produced is for single use. This is a ‘plague of convenience’, where an overwhelming amount of plastic is used temporarily for transport and storage, and then simply thrown away, 80% of all the plastic ever produced has ended up either in a landfill or loose in the natural environment.
So, even though recycling has been a ‘thing’ and recently become even more trendy, the truth is that globally we lack the capacity to manage recycling efforts effectively. Furthermore, the act of plastic recycling has often created new, damaging effects to the environment and health concerns through air pollution.
This begs the question, are our efforts focused on the wrong end of the stick – waste management?
Plastic has been essential for economic growth across the globe for the past 50 years. It has infiltrated every area of society and industry. It has been used to create medical devices, children’s toys, agriculture, clothes and the ubiquitous packaging of products.
Plastic, from the cradle to the grave releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases, such as ethylene and methane. As roughly 90% of plastics are petrochemical derivatives they are harmful to our bodies at every stage of their life cycle. From production to its various uses, to its disposal in a landfill, recycling, incineration or abandonment in the natural environment. And because of this, micro plastic particles are present in almost every single living organism on this rock we call home, accumulating in the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe.
According to the World Health Organisation, microplastics impact our reproductive and immune systems, livers and kidneys. And the problem is not going away, America alone has plans to increase plastic production by as much as 30% in the next couple of years.
From this, it’s easy to see that waste management is only a small part of the solution. Plastic production is the main issue and the businesses that rely on plastic packaging have the most agency and power to address the issue by simply changing their product and packaging choices. Waste management campaigns tend to shift attention away from the core issue (plastic production) and lump the consumer with the responsibility to “clean up”.
Overall global industry has been successful in preventing measures that would limit the production of plastic and thereby impact their profits. But there has been some push back through consumer action groups and government policy, with France banning single use plastic by 2020 and the European Union set to follow suit. The tourist island of Bali also introduced a single use plastic ban in 2019, with a target of a 70% reduction this year alone.
But any optimism needs to be measured against the fact that the global economy is set to expand as a result of population growth. This will lead to a multitude of industries around the world building hundreds of new production plants to cater to a growing consumer base. As a result, an increase in plastic production (by as much as 40%) can be expected through the necessity to bottle your water, carry your groceries, brush your teeth, clean your face and much more. That is unless consumers place pressure on the producers to do away with plastic and find alternatives. Good citizens must also put pressure on their elected officials (politicians) to legislate against the production of plastic, as ultimately they hold the most power to speed things up.
The tide is turning against plastic, but if you head down to the Umgeni River mouth this morning you’ll see that it’s not happening fast enough. We need legally binding measures to limit the production of plastics and hold big business and governments accountable for the damage plastic does to our bodies, communities, and ecosystems. The first part of being a solution to a problem is taking responsibility for your contribution to the problem. So where to from here?
Be conscious of the plastic you consume. When shopping look for clothing made of cotton, hemp, wool and other natural fibers. Avoid buying products that contain microbeads. Where ever possible buy in bulk, and when shopping, don’t forget to bring along your own reusable containers and shopping bags.
If a company or manufacturer uses an absurd amount of plastic packaging, let them know. Write them a letter or take to social media. On the other side of the fence, praise those who are reducing their use of plastic, the power of social media must not be overlooked.
Be bold, take a pledge to reduce your own plastic use. Get active and participate in cleanup efforts or better yet start your own cleanup. Organize a plastic pollution event and support organizations that are fighting against plastic pollution at a policy level.
The final point, stay positive. At the end of the day, plastics are part of our everyday life. What’s important is to figure out where you can limit the amount of plastic in your life. From there find others who are also interested in combating plastic. The issue can be won at the grassroots level, it’s important not to forget that.