Look in your gut

Plastic Pollution

Human propensity to destroy our planet extends into the air we breathe and now quite literally requires a global gut check. A National Geographic series titled ‘Plastic or Planet’ highlights the following facts:

• 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions, which is the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash sitting on every foot of coastline.

• 40% of plastic produced is packaging, used just once and discarded.

• 50% of the world’s plastic is made in Asia; with 29% being made in China and 21% in the rest of Asia.

• Less than 20% of all plastic is recycled globally. Plastic recycling rates are highest in Europe at 30%; while China’s rate is 25%, in the US it is 9%.

• About 8% of the world’s oil production is used to make plastic, and power the manufacturing of it, and this figure is projected to rise by 20% by 2050.

For decades, richer countries have disposed their plastic waste in poorer developing countries, but now there is a seismic shift in waste trade. An article published in Science Advances notes that China, which has imported a cumulative 45% of plastic waste since 1992, banned plastic waste importation in 2018, and “an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced with the new Chinese policy by 2030”.

Plastic waste has destroyed coastal and marine life, infiltrated our food and water sources, and now resides in our guts. According to a pilot study at the 26th annual United European Gastroenterology Conference, 2018, “Microplastics have been found in human stool samples from countries in many parts of the world”. Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna and the Environment Agency of Austria looked at stool samples from eight individuals in eight different countries: Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the UK and Austria. Every stool sample tested positive for up to nine different plastic types, with an average of 20 particles of plastic per 10 grams of stool.

But, if half of the world’s plastic is made in Asia, how much microplastic does the average Asian gut contain? How much of a global gut check is needed to curb plastic waste?

A global ban on single-use plastic bags across the world is necessary. In June 2018, India announced plans to eliminate all single-use plastic by 2022, and some individual states like Kerala have started to ban or phase them out. The Plastic Pollution Coalition, “a global alliance of more than 700 organisations, business and thought leaders across 60 countries” is aimed at reducing single-use plastics. Now, on October 29, over 250 organisations responsible for 20% of the global plastic packaging signed on to the “New Plastics Economy Global Commitment”.

Arguably, global gurus may not have latched onto a marketing title zinger, but the initiative’s launch hashtag was “#LineInTheSand”. Heralded as a big-name collaboration with UNEP, and led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the rationale of the commitment is that:  “A systemic shift tackling the root causes is required: a transition towards a circular economy for plastic, in which plastic never becomes waste”.

Hopefully, the “coalition” can join forces with the “commitment” and the proverbial line in the sand will not be eroded! As per the commitment: “To help make this vision a reality, businesses and governments commit to a set of ambitious 2025 targets. They will work to eliminate the plastic items we don’t need; innovate so all plastics we do need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted; and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment.”

The commitment envisages two different categories of “signatories” — business and government — and a separate category of “endorsers” which includes “NGOs, academic institutions, financial institutions and others”. Currently, “endorsers” are the largest list, ranging from Arup and BNP Paribas Asset Management to the World Economic Forum and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The commitment’s website reveals “Government & City Signatories” to be City of Austin (US); Government of Chile; Government of France; Government of Grenada; Ministry of Environment, New Zealand; Ministry of Environment, Peru; Ministry of Environment and Energy Transition, Portugal; Scottish Government Environment Department, Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change, Republic of Seychelles; Government of the United Kingdom; and The Walloon Government.”

Business signatories are listed within subsets: “a) Packaged goods companies, retailers, hospitality and food service companies, packaging producers”, the largest list including corporate giants from Carrefour and Coca-Cola to Target, Unilever and Walmart; b) “Raw materials producers” — a smaller list ranging Aquapak Polymers Limited and Borealis AG to Novamont SpA and Origin Materials; c) “Collection, sorting and recycling industry” — a smaller list ranging from APK AG and Boomera to Waste Venture India Pvt Ltd to Worn Again Technologies; d) “Durable Goods Producers”— full list includes Ernesto São SimãoLda., Mobike, HP Inc, Philips, Preserve, Riversimple Movement Ltd, Schneider Electric, Stanley, Black & Decker; e) “Investors” list includes Althelia, Sustainable Ocean Fund, Closed Loop Partners, Creolus, Fifth Season Ventures, and FORWARD.one Venture Capital for Hardware; f) “Supplier to the packaging industry” — includes two companies — UPM Raflatac and Verstraete in mould labels.

But the commitment does not contain concrete targets to reduce the total amount of single-use plastics and the 2025 deadline is not pressing. Packaged goods companies, retailers, hospitality and food service signatories are, for instance, committing generally to:

i. “Take action to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging by 2025. 

ii. Take action to move from single-use towards reuse models where relevant by 2025. 

iii. 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. 

iv. Set an ambitious 2025 recycled content target across all plastic packaging rates for plastic”. 

Can the Commitment gain momentum and show tangible plastic waste results, or will our guts just give up before then?

(The writer is an expert on climate change based in the US)

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