News of the “The War on Plastic” has recently become a prominent feature. We have seen an increase in discussions on the use of plastic and a growing concern with the impacts of plastic waste. Who is responsible for the war on plastic and what are the opportunities to challenge the current levels of plastic consumption have become critical issues.
The concern with plastic waste increased legislation aimed to curb or ban the use of single-use plastic. Currently, according to the UN, there are around 60 countries that have implemented laws such as bans and levies on single-use plastic items. Perhaps the most obvious measure is either the ban on plastic bags or a tax on plastic bags, to cut the use of these items.
These measures taken by countries are the result of an increase in multiple stakeholder’s awareness of the negative impacts of plastic, with a specific emphasis on plastic pollution to the environment. Experts in ecology draw attention to the high levels of plastic pollution in the oceans and how this contributes to the extinction of marine life. Health experts highlight that plastic pollution poses a health concern to human populations through the ingestion of seafood contaminated with micro-plastics, but emphasise that more research is needed to decide the impacts of plastic pollution. Meanwhile, sustainability experts point towards the excessive use of plastics and plastic litter that dominates modern lifestyle and modern production.
With regards to the pollution of oceans and seas with plastic, there is a growing consensus at the level of international actors that a change is necessary to prevent its environmental consequences. UNEP launched in 2018 the report “Single-use plastics: Road to Sustainability” where they emphasised the need to cut plastic litter that ends up in the oceans. The report focuses on the responsibility of governments to cut plastic litter and promote innovation towards finessing alternative technology to plastics. This is joined by the campaign #CleanSeas which aims “to eliminate major sources of marine litter: micro-plastics in cosmetics and the excessive, wasteful usage of single-use plastic by the year 2022” (UNEP:2018)
At a glance, one would be tempted to think that the solution lies in the way we manage plastic litter and to push for better recycling schemes. However, as Annie Leonard from Greenpeace argues, the plastic issue today is too big for recycling, opting for a joint approach of responsibilizing government and corporations to curb their plastic production and push them to innovate to cut their plastic waste. The prevalence of plastic in our lives has a reached a level at which it is impossible to eliminate, but at the same time plastic has proven its worth in areas where it is not necessary to reduce, such as medicine. The biggest issue remains single-use plastics and those that are hard to recycle. In this context, improving recycling schemes should still be on the table.
The seminal paper “Production, use, and the fate of all plastics ever made” by Geyer, Jambeck and Law (2017) raised concerns about the fate of all plastics ever made and the way these have been managed. According to their research, only 9% of the world’s plastic is being recycled, with 79% of the plastic ending up in landfills or the natural environment, ultimately contributing to pollution. Considering the amount of plastic that has been recycled, improving recycling schemes is not something to overlook. Doing this means actually working with plastic manufacturers to correctly and consistently label all plastic to make it easier to recycle, but also to make sure efficient sorting of recyclable plastics is in place to ease up the process. This means that there is a need for a global effort towards improving the efficiency of the recycling systems that are already in place. Garcia and Robertson (2017) paper on “The future of plastics recycling”show the faults and limitations of the current recycling scheme, emphasising that the key to plastic pollution is to improve recycling methods, but also to design plastic materials that are easy to recycle. The principal actors to carry out these changes needed to tackle plastic pollutions are governments and corporations. Governments have regulation powers that can change the behaviour of corporations and capital to incentivise research into alternative technologies. Corporations have research capabilities and exercise a certain level of control over production. At the same time, corporations must recognise their moral responsibility towards solving plastic pollution as they have been the main producers of single-use plastics.
What role does the consumer have in the story of the war on plastic? This is a heated debate between two sides. On the one hand, there are those who are advocating for the more individual responsibility of consumers to cut their plastic use. On the other hand, there are those who argue that responsibility lies with governments and corporations. For some single-use plastic is an issue of convenience and choice, for others, this simply does not hold when it comes to matters of accessibility and needs. While for some living a zero-waste or low-waste lifestyle is accessible, for others it is more difficult to meet. However, arguing that consumers should not feel a responsibility towards the plastic they use, is in my opinion, robbing consumers of agency and denying the role of the consumer in driving change. Consumers are driving force of change, and they can influence corporation. The Guardian found that in the next decade, consumers will be generally motivated by reduced packaging and recyclability as opposed to price when it comes to the choice of what and where they buy. This is a telling sign that attitudes towards plastic are changing within society and that consumers represent an important factor in the war on plastic.
What does the war on plastic bring us? The future will tell, but one key aspect of it is the need for cooperation and global action. Innovation and changes in consumption patterns and behaviour will also be important. Eliminating single-use plastic waste and replacing it with materials with higher recyclability is what the war on plastic is about and there is a shared responsibility between governments, corporations and consumers to make sure that this goal is achieved.