Is the scale of our current plastic waste sustainable? No, not even close

Written by Jonathan Chilton

100 billion is a big number. Whilst it may be trivial to understand what this number and its digits represent in a purely mathematical sense, we cannot truly comprehend how large a number this really is. Try it, picture 100 billion individual apples in your mind right now. I got to about twenty before finding it difficult to add more to the image and keep the previous apples in view, which I think we can all agree is a little ways off 100 billion. Now for the sobering statistic, 100 billion plastic beverage bottles were sold in the United States in 2014 alone [1]. 

The headline statistics on the topic make for alarming reading. 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste generated by 2015, just 9% of which is recycled [2]. 8 million metric tonnes of plastic makes its way into our oceans each year [3]. The net result of which, unsurprisingly, is that the marine environment and wildlife that resides within it now faces a constant battle of entanglement, interaction and ingestion of plastics that each pose a plethora of dangers, risks and uncertainties [4]. As of 2015, an estimated 90% of seabirds have ingested plastic [5]. Stories of marine wildlife becoming entangled in our waste are becoming all too common. 33% of all marine mammal species have been found in such a situation [1]. Without significant change to the status quo there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans by weight in 2050 [6]. 

The magnitude of the numbers themselves involved when discussing the plastic problem illustrate the the issue at hand, the scale of both our plastic use and the economy. The seemingly endless pursuit of economic growth in the form of gross domestic product (GDP) is the prime culprit for the current scale of our economy. The current economic agenda seeks to maximise total market activity, regardless of how beneficial (or indeed unbeneficial) the activity actually is [7]. This market activity requires the consumption, and subsequent disposal, of materials and resources to operate. Not only is GDP positively correlated with material consumption, it is also the most important impetus of material use [8,9]

Such a blind pursuit of increasing scale however has given no thought to the size of the economy relative to the ecosystem within which it operates [10]. Ultimately, our economy exists only within the boundaries of our finite planet. Decades of economic growth means the economy has now expanded to such a size that the demand it requires from the environment — in terms of throughput and disposal of materials — is now far from trivial, in many cases exceeding the capacity and sustainable boundaries of the planet [11,12].

Plastics are lightweight, strong, versatile, hygienic and resource efficient [13]. Whilst its easy for us to point fingers at producers and manufacturers for using materials so damaging to the environment, it’s perfectly understandable why they choose plastics over glass or other materials. It makes perfect economic sense in an economic environment orchestrated by minimising costs and maximising profits. The upshot of all this however is that between 1960 and 2013, plastic waste generation rates increased by almost 84 times despite total waste generation increasing by just 2.9 times over the same period  [14]. 

The pursuit of growth and the compelling selling points of plastic alone do not fully explain the reason for such a disproportionate increase in plastic waste. To complete the picture we must consider what economists refer to as negative externalities. These are the negative consequences of production and consumption that are experienced by others [15]. Put simply, and with reference to the topic in question, this is the result of the people producing not being directly affected by the pollution their products cause. Once the purchase of a bottle of water is made and it is subsequently thrown away, the producer does not have to pay the price of the damage that bottle causes to the marine ecosystem where it ultimately resides. Conservative estimates put the total costs of negative externalities of waste plastic in the ocean at $40 billion [16].

But what about solutions to the plastic currently plaguing our oceans, and the economic drivers responsible? The New Plastics Economy report suggests the creation of an ‘independent coordinating vehicle’ to help all parts of the plastics value chain move toward a circular future for plastics. They are working towards a future in which single-use plastic is eliminated and effective after-use infrastructure is in place to comprehensively reduce the waste that makes its way into our oceans and ecosystems. This is essential in limiting and reducing the scale of our plastic use and eliminating the negative externalities [5]. Meaningful solutions must tackle the causes of the plastic epidemic, rather than just attempt to clean up the eventual outcome.

 

References

[1] Plastic Oceans International. 2019. The Facts. Accessed: 5/11/2019. Available From: https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/

[2] Geyer. R, et al. 2017.Production, Use, and fate of all plastics ever made.Science Advances. 3(7).

[3] Jambeck. J.R, et al. 2015. Plastic waste inputs from the land into the ocean.Science. 347(6223), pp. 768-771.

[4] Law. K.L. 2017. Plastics in the Marine Environment. Annual Review of Marine Science. 9, pp. 205-209.

[5] Wilcox. C, et al. 2015. Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. PNAS. 112(38), pp. 11899-11904.

[6] Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2016. New Plastics Economy report offers blueprint to design a circular future for plastics. Accessed: 6/11/2019. Available From: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/news/new-plastics-economy-report-offers-blueprint-to-design-a-circular-future-for-plastics .

[7] Cobb, C., Halstead, T. and Rowe, J. 1995. If the GDP is up, why is America down?. ATLANTIC-BOSTON. 276, pp. 59-79.

[8] Agnolucci. P, et al, 2017, The causal impact of economic growth on material use in Europe. Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy.  6(4), pp. 414-432.

[9] Pothen. F, Schymura. M. 2015. Bigger cakes with fewer ingredients? A comparison of material use of the world economy. Ecological Economics. 109, pp. 109-121.

[10] Daly. H.E. 2003. Ecological Economics: The concept of scale and its relation to Allocation, Distribution, and Uneconomic GrowthCANSEE, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland. Accessed: 5/11/2019. Available from: http://www.greeneconomics.net/2003HDaly.pdf .

[11] Daly. H.E, 1992, Allocation, distribution, and scale: towards an economics that is efficient, just, and sustainable. Ecological Economics. 6( 3), pp. 185-193.

[12] Steffen. W, et al, 2015, Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet, Science, Vol. 347 (6223) , pp. 736.

[13] British Plastics Federation. 2019. Why do we need plastic packaging?. Plastics and Flexible Packaging group. Accessed: 12/11/19, Available from: https://www.bpf.co.uk/packaging/why-do-we-need-plastic-packaging.aspx .

[14] Tsiamis. D.A, et al. 2018. Role of plastics in decoupling municipal solid waste and economic growth in the U.S, .Waste Management. 77, pp. 147-155. 

[15] Oosterhuis. F, et al, 2014, Economic instruments and marine litter control. Ocean & Coastal Management. 102, pp. 47-54.

[16] United Nations Environment Programme. 2014. Valuing plastic: The business case for measuring, managing and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry.Accessed: 14/11/2019, Available from: http://wedocs.unep.org/handle/20.500.11822/9238 .