"That's a threat which can only be ignored at our peril."
Plastics have become such a presence in our everyday lives that its ‘disruptive’ presence across the economy can no longer be ignored.
A recent study commissioned by the Dame Ellen MacArthur Foundation founded by world-renowned philanthropist and sailor Ellen MacArthur (she holds the record for solo circumnavigation of the world) noted that plastics serve as a key enabler in such sectors as packaging, construction, transportation, healthcare and electronics, among others. Plastics, the report submitted at the recent World Economic Forum said, have brought about a revolution of sorts across industries bringing massive economic benefits and unimagined perils if not properly and responsibly manufactured, used and disposed.
As advised, the success of plastics is reflected in the exponential growth over the past 50 years. The report noted: “Since 1964, plastics production has increased twenty fold, reaching 315 million metric tons in 2014, the equivalent of more than 500 Empire State buildings. It is expected to double again in 25 years and almost quadruple by 2050, with plastic packaging its largest application representing 26 percent of the total volume. As a result of its versatility, it has replaced other packaging materials. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of plastics packaging as a percentage of global packaging volumes increased from 17 percent to 25 percent. In 2013 alone the value of plastic packaging put out into the market reached US$280 billion”
But, as the same report noted, together with this success was the inevitable increase in plastic rubbish, the disposition of which has put the world in a frenzy. Over the past decade the recycling of plastic waste has grown by leaps and bounds to the point that available recycling facilities worldwide have been up to their limits. The sudden decision of China, which heretofore handled almost 50 percent of plastic waste for recycling, to ban the importation of such rubbish starting this year has put the entire industry in a bind.
With China’s ban, the search for recycling facilities has shifted to high gear to the point that intermediate processors in the waste-exporting countries such as Japan have been given more leeway
to deal with recyclable materials. The South China Morning Post report notes that Japan, the world’s third largest economy, “produces the most amount of plastic waste per person after the United States but lags behind other developed countries in curbing the use of plastics despite growing fears over environmental pollution.”
Indeed, recyclable waste has been piling up in most of its waste treatment plants prompting it together with the European Union, South Korea, Canada and Australia to voice alarm over the situation. The United States, the biggest plastic waste exporter of all, even argued that if the disruption caused by the Chinese ban on the import of such rubbish continues there “could be a heightened threat of increased marine litter.”
That’s a threat which can only be ignored at our peril. And here we are only talking of land-based plastic rubbish captured in the course of everyday use and disposition. There is a newer and probably even greater threat sooner rather than later in what scientists describe as marine litter which has invaded bodies of water – rivers, lakes, water systems and now the oceans. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation study on marine litter is revealing and frightening noting in particular the harmful effect of single-use plastic which, as everybody knows, is the packaging of record in almost all domestic plastic use.
Said the report: “Unless the world takes drastic action to recycle plastic, by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. At least eight million tons of plastics find their way into the oceans every year. That is the equivalent of one garbage truck full of waste every minute.”
A separate study by the European Commission reinforced the grave implications of marine litter on the global eco system and, of necessity, its peoples and economies. The report said: “More than 150 million tons of plastics have accumulated in the world’s oceans, while 4.6-12.7 million tons are added every year. It is broadly assumed that approximately 80 percent of marine litter is land-based. Marine litter can cause serious economic damage: losses for coastal communities, tourism, shipping and fishing. Potential cost across EU for coastal and beach cleaning was assessed at almost €630 million per year, while the cost to the fishing industry could amount to almost €60 million, which would represent approximately 1 percent of total revenues of the EU fishing fleet (in 2010). Taking into account its accumulation and dissemination, marine litter may be one of the fastest growing threats to the health of the world’s oceans.”
All is not lost, however. The just concluded East Asia Congress organized by the Partnership for the Environmental Management of the Seas of East Asia which brought together high level delegations from 19 countries in the region reiterated by way of its final output—the Iloilo Declaration—the group’s commitment to intensify actions and partnerships not only to save the oceans, coasts and river systems but to ensure that these resources are optimally and responsibly harnessed for the benefit of all the people. Taking their cue from similar initiatives in other parts of the world, the participants unveiled a new set of strategies to ensure full and proper participation of all stakeholders especially the millions of inhabitants in the region in this new task of harnessing our oceans and other bodies of water to bring about healthy peoples and healthy economies. By doing so, the benefits derived from an ever increasing plastic-inhabited world will not only increase by leaps and bounds but will ensure the sustainability of life in this our one and only homeland.
If only for their perseverance in ensuring the recommitment of all participants, in and out of governments, to a cleaner, more progressive, sustainable and equitable development, PEMSEA and its host agency, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, deserve our best wishes.