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To solve the plastics crisis, we need to calm down about plastics

How to deal with the waste generated by the half-billion metric tons of plastic manufactured each year? One approach is to consume fewer polymers, recycle them more, and stop the rest from getting into the natural environment. Another is to declare the whole process a scam, and hope the problem will somehow go away of its own accord.
Last Updated 26 February 2024, 03:24 IST

By David Fickling

How to deal with the waste generated by the half-billion metric tons of plastic manufactured each year? One approach is to consume fewer polymers, recycle them more, and stop the rest from getting into the natural environment. Another is to declare the whole process a scam, and hope the problem will somehow go away of its own accord.

Faced with a seemingly intractable dilemma, the latter approach is tempting. Fixing things is hard; assigning blame far easier. Such a strategy is unlikely to change much, however.

The Center for Climate Integrity, a US nonprofit, issued a report this month alleging oil and chemicals companies “perpetuated a decades-long campaign of fraud and deception about the recyclability of plastics,” combing through public and private statements to build a case for legal action against the companies and their lobby groups. The report tells a powerful story about the difficulty of making recycling work, and the incessant efforts of the plastics industry to pretend it was more successful than it really is.

And yet the problem with our plastics addiction is far more fundamental than an issue of mere greenwashing.

Consider the progress that’s been made against other pollutants. Per-capita carbon emissions and crude oil consumption have fallen about 15 per cent in rich countries over the past few decades, as efficiency improvements, renewable power and electrification squeezed fossil fuels out of the economy.Plastics have gone in the opposite direction: In 2019, we were using about 29 per cent more per person than we were at the turn of the millennium.

That’s not because plastics producers have carried out a more successful lobbying operation than the rest of the fossil fuel industry. It’s because their products are more indispensably useful to our lives, and harder to substitute with alternatives.

The progress that we’ve made on the road to net zero comes from three main sources: efficiency, substitution, and lifestyle changes. To tackle our plastics problem, we need to consider which combination of those levers to pull.

To make our usage of plastics more efficient, we’d need to recycle more and shift our consumption toward lightweight, thinner containers. Such moves can show real benefits in reducing emissions. Members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club for rich democracies, are consuming less gasoline now than at any point since the 1980s. That’s largely caused not by the recent rise of electric cars, but by fuel-economy regulations that have been slowly tightening for decades.

Efficiency gains can be agonizingly slow, however. In the US, those fuel economy regulations mean that emissions from gasoline usage have fallen about 9.3 per cent since 2000, slipping to 1.7 per cent if you add in the diesel used in trucks. Substitution, replacing one technology with another is far more effective. By switching away from coal-fired power and toward wind and solar (as well as less-polluting natural gas), emissions from America’s grid fell by a third over the same period.

Substitution might not work well for plastics, though. It’s dependent on the availability of viable alternative technologies. Wind and solar power and electric batteries are cheap, scalable, and superior to fossil fuels. Biodegradable and reusable plastics that we might want to use instead of conventional ones offer few improvements, while alternatives such as glass and aluminum are often worse in climate and environmental terms.

That leaves lifestyle changes, but these are famously difficult to engineer. Every time you buy a clamshell of strawberries, a bottle of water, or a gallon of milk, you’re making a decision to use more plastic, rather than less. If we’re adjusting out behavior at all, it’s to use more and more polymers, both in rich countries and in emerging ones.

As long as consumers and producers continue to favor plastic, our consumption will tend to rise. That tendency is so strong that even widespread public aversion (Americans consider plastic waste a bigger problem than climate change as well as air and water pollution, for instance) doesn’t appear strong enough to rein it in.

It’s hardly surprising that this situation inspires a sense of futility. That’s particularly the case because, as the Center for Climate Integrity’s report points out, the industry’s approach has been riven with cynicism for decades.

Meeting that with further cynicism, however, won’t solve the problem. Efficiency gains from recycling and light-weighting may be the best hope we have to turn around the juggernaut of our society’s plastics habit. In places, such as Norway and Japan, there’s even evidence that they’re producing real results, particularly when manufacturers are forced to shoulder the cost of disposal.

That’s an argument for tough regulations that will be resisted tooth and nail by the industry, to build a recycling system strong enough to command public support and discourage households from landfilling their polymers. Encouraging the nihilistic sense that all attempts to improve our usage of plastics are fraudulent will only make that work harder.

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(Published 26 February 2024, 03:24 IST)

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