It’s all around you — in your food, in your clothes, and even possibly in your bloodstream (1). It’s deep in our deepest oceans (2), and building up in our soils (3). Plastic is present in most of our lives, on an almost daily basis, and in recent years the problem of our relationship with this material has become somewhat of a global one.
A plastic love affair…
One of the most seemingly paradoxical things we do with plastic seems to be that we create this amazingly durable substance which is impermeable, and, due to its extremely slow decomposition process, is practically indestructible (1, 2, 3) – and then we use it once and discard it, so that now we have millions of tonnes of so-called ‘waste’. As Zakari Ajia reported on this website (4), a 2017 report (5) published in Science Advances calculated that, since humans first began using plastic around 1950, we have produced an estimated “8300 million metric tonnes” of this material, “9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment” (5).
Like a small child who loves a toy passionately before disregarding it for a new one, we are incapable of being without this substance for the time it takes to drink, say, a cup of coffee…and then we move on.
Plastic waste is being addressed in a number of ways all over the world, with many recent developments at all levels of society – from governmental policy to grassroots movements, and corporate regulations to scientific innovations – seeming to show great promise in our abilities as a human community to deal with this situation. This article series explores some of the current inspirational reactions to plastic waste, as well as giving suggestions for how we can encourage the fundamental change in attitude which seems so essential to creating long-term solutions to our relationship with this material.
To cut plastic, we need a Sword…
One way to use plastic more sustainably could be to recycle it. Many municipalities around the world, such as those in European Union countries, the USA, and Australia, have local government-led waste recycling initiatives (6). However, up until last year, wherever the plastic was initially used, almost half of all plastic recycling was ending up in China for processing (7). Ninety-five per cent of plastics collected for recycling in the European Union and 70% of those in the US were shipped to Chinese processing plants (6), a practice which, according to one report, saw 30 cities in China the centres of the processing of 106 million metric tonnes of plastic over 25 years (7).
The image of recycling was perhaps not as nice as it seemed for those throwing away their plastic into the recycling bins. It was reported that “garbage collectors and their families worked under stifling conditions, with various ill effects on their health and the environment” (7, 8); and that, since they did not have the facilities to recycle all the plastic collected, and much was soiled or contaminated, a lot of it was ending up in landfill in China anyway (7, 8).
However, in January 2018, China’s government enacted a law called the ‘National Sword’ policy (6), banning the importing of all materials to be processed for recycling which are not 99.5% pure (6). This includes scrap metal and glass, which are also affected by the ban, but by far the biggest affect of the law is on the influx of plastic to that country.
Plastic imports to China for recycling were reported a few months ago to have fallen by 99% (6). The global usage of plastics has not decreased that rapidly; rather, those councils and companies which were relying on the cheap labour of Chinese processing plants have been faced with the conundrum of what to do with their plastic.
A year and a half after the ban was put in place, it seems that one of the biggest effects is that more people are taking responsibility for their own waste, which, especially from a permaculture perspective, seems highly encouraging. Since there is now too much plastic waste to deal with in many places, it would make sense to address the root of the problem and stop using plastic products in the first place, wherever possible.
Where to send the plastic?
The knock-on effects of the ban seem to have not quite reached this root-addressing stage in some places. A lot of recycling companies have simply looked to other Asian markets for processing, causing a “deluge” of waste in “huge influx of “black-market recycling” in Malaysia (9). This has been met with stern opposition from the Malaysian government, who, about a month ago, began a “crackdown” on illegal importing of plastic waste, which was being accepted by those who wanted financial gain, but did not really have the facilities to process it properly.
Following this, Malaysia was reported as sending back “450 tonnes” of plastic waste to its countries of origin, the main ones identified as being Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United States (10). Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have faced similarly high influxes of plastic waste which they do not have sufficient facilities to process, and their respective governments have responded with import bans of their own (11).
These governments’ firm drawing of the line to help protect the environment of their countries can be seen as a wake-up call to governments and corporations in other countries, in particular those involved in producing so much plastic waste in the first place, to find better solutions than shipping the plastic halfway across the world to inadequate facilities at the cost of human and environmental health.
A solution from the UK is to incinerate the plastic in waste-to-energy plants. Last year, an extra 665,000 tonnes of plastic were reported as being incinerated in the UK, compared to the previous year, in order to create energy (6). In a way, this is a form of recycling and is keeping the plastic from landfill, thus protecting our soils from contamination. However, this practice can also be seen as moving the contamination from one element to another; since the energy facilities in question have also been found to emit harmful pollutants into the air (12).
Dealing with the so-called ‘waste’ which we have already produced is clearly an important part of addressing the issue of plastic use in general. But what the ‘National Sword’ policy seems to be highlighting very clearly (if piles of plastic mounding up in our oceans was not already a big enough sign), is that we already produce too much plastic. So how can we address the production side of things in a holistic way?
Contaminating the earth is a crime!
A report from the United Nations Environment Program last year (13) notes that, to date, about 112 cities, states and national governments have introduced bans or taxation policies on single-use plastic items. For example, a number of European countries have introduced charges for plastic bags in supermarkets, and the EU has approved a total ban on many single-use plastic items, to be in place by 2021 (13).
Many Indian states have also banned plastic packaging (14, 15). Some governments have gone even further; to date, the “toughest plastic bag ban” to be put in place is probably that of Kenya, which in 2017 introduced a total prohibition of the “production, sale, importation and use of plastic carrier bags” with punishments for those caught violating this of four years in jail, or a fine of around 38,000 US dollars (13).
Such policies seem to show great promise towards healing ourselves of our dependence on plastics, and seem to be paving the way towards the possibility of countries and states working together to address this global problem. Some suggestions for how to do this include the implementation of a global treaty banning single-use plastics (16). though in order for our change in attitude towards plastic to be truly meaningful, then factors other than government need to be present.
The main people responsible for production of plastic can arguably be seen as corporations, so co-operation of the companies involved in using the plastic in the first place is key to encouraging more regenerative practices with plastic. Many alternatives to plastic packaging and single-use bags are being introduced at a corporate level.
So far, this seems to be popular but perhaps slow-moving. For example, in Thailand, one of the main importers of plastic waste to China prior to the “National Sword” ban (6), a group of 40 of the largest retail operators pledged last year to cut down on plastic bag use (17). This is definitely helpful for the environment, but the companies in question have made a commitment “not to provide plastic bags on the fourth of each month” (17), a move which will reduce plastic waste but not stop it.
If you want to change the system…
The issues outlined in this article show the current level of global plastic production and waste, and some steps which are already being taken to curb our plastic use. China and Malaysia’s banning of impure plastic waste, and the many single-use plastic bans being enacted throughout the world, are encouraging signs of this. They can be seen as emergency measures; which will hopefully help to halt the most harmful effects of plastic as it is currently being used worldwide. Yet to achieve truly holistic solutions, we also need to address our underlying relationship with plastic.
From a permaculture perspective, this means we need to design or encourage new systems which provide the same functions that plastic does, but in a more holistic way, and following the ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share (Set Limits and Re-distribute Surplus).
Part 2 of this article will look at some ways in which these new designs are taking shape, from artistic encouragement of a new worldview to plant-based plastic alternatives. We will explore small steps that we can all take as individuals to help loosen our dependence upon this material, and expand outwards to the global community.
- Hinscliff, G, 2018. ‘Even our own bodies now contain plastic waste. it’s time to get drastic’. The Guardian, 23/10/18. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/23/humans-contain-plastic-waste-drastic-banning-straws – retrieved 12/7/19
- Gibbens, S, 2019. ‘Plastic proliferates at bottom of world’s deepest ocean trench.’ National Geographic, 13/5/19. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/05/plastic-bag-mariana-trench-pollution-science-spd/ – retrieved 12/7/19
- Lamizana, B, 2018. ‘Plastic planet: how tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil’. UN Environment, 3/4/18. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil – retrieved 12/7/19
- Ajia, Z, 2019. ‘The Plastic Waste Issue’. Permaculture News, 27/3/19. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2019/03/27/the-plastic-waste-issue/ – retrieved 12/7/19
- Geyer, R; Jambeck JR; Law KL, 2017. ‘Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made’. Science Advances 19 Jul 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782. Available online here: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782 – retrieved 12/7/19
- Katz, C, 2019. ‘Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Plastic Waste has Stalled Global Recycling’. Yale E360, 7/3/19. https://e360.yale.edu/features/piling-up-how-chinas-ban-on-importing-waste-has-stalled-global-recycling – retrieved 12/7/19
- Lu, C, 2019. ‘What China’s import ban on plastic means for the rest of the world’. Mitte, 20/2/19. https://mitte.co/2019/02/20/what-chinas-import-ban-on-plastic-waste-means-for-the-rest-of-the-world/ – retrieved 12/7/19
- Plastic China Documentary, 2017. ‘Plastic China’. https://www.plasticchina.org/
- Looi, F, 2019. ‘Malaysia’s rising illegal plastic recycling factories’. Al Jazeera, 26/1/19. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/01/malaysias-rising-illegal-plastic-recycling-factories-190126151235480.html – retrieved 12/7/19
- ASEAN Post, 26/5/2019. ‘Malaysia ships back plastic waste’. https://theaseanpost.com/article/malaysia-ships-back-plastic-waste – retrieved 12/7/19
- Niranjan, A, 2019. ‘Amid plastic deluge, Southeast Asia refuses Western waste’. DW, 4/7/19. https://www.dw.com/en/amid-plastic-deluge-southeast-asia-refuses-western-waste/a-49467769 – retrieved 12/7/19
- Arkenbout, A, et al, 2018. ‘Hidden Emissions: A Story from the Netherlands’. Zero Waste Europe: Brussels, Belgium. Available as a PDF here: https://zerowasteeurope.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/NetherlandsCS-FNL.pdf?utm_source=Press+Release+ZWE&utm_campaign=ecbc94492b-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_11_28_11_27&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_a7b3972a6a-ecbc94492b-&mc_cid=ecbc94492b&mc_eid=%5BUNIQID – retrieved 12/7/19
- UNEP, 2018. ‘Single-Use Plastics: A Roadmap to Sustainability’. UNEP: Nairobi, Kenya. Available as a PDF here: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf?isAllowed=y&sequence=1 – retrieved 12/7/19
- Parvaiz, A, 2018. ‘Why India passed one of the world’s toughest anti-plastics laws’. Huffington Post, 7/3/18. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/single-use-plastic-ban-india_n_5b3a09b6e4b0f3c221a28a07?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAAV7jvqwhPXpodwTfRD2F4mnc6wHVt9BxvLdj11_It7sWm9_SyWDsB9xe9zdrEeoKmFI2hxwiphM3iU97RQnX7nQiIihgOJE6Rz4xNbEKyo-J1fm4X4tITaA7nM004ZFU79Kkgj3-RT2NnqNZXuhH-0dhKLd3a2IlUlOTwuja5jf – retrieved 12/7/19
- Safi, M, 2018. ‘Mumbai bans plastic bags and bottles’. The Guardian, 25/6/18. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/25/mumbai-india-bans-plastic-bags-and-bottles – retrieved 12/7/19
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