The Economist shouted last week in its cover about the increasing concern about global deforestation. On one hand we are trying to reduce the use of plastic, and on the other one trying to keep our forests alive - I am sure you can also see the conflict right there!
But first, we should look a bit deeper into plastics to understand a crucial question - what are plastics made for? And are they all harmful to the environment?
Let's start with the basics. The world produces about 350 million tonnes of plastic per year (Europe has held a more stable production at around 60 million per year). Now, not all this plastic is disposable and therefore not necessarily a bad thing. Think, for example, about your electronics (laptop, phone, tv, speakers, watches), home appliances (washing machine, dishwasher, kettle) and other utensils and decoration artefacts that are used for a very long time - for every ton of plastic used in the production of these essentials to modern life, a huge amount of wood and metal is preserved in nature.
140 million tonnes of single-use packaging plastic
is produced every year in the world :(
So the share of plastic that really concerns us is the 40% that is produced for single-use packaging. These are the water bottles and packaging that carries your cleaning products, your toothpaste, food wrappers, and so on. Doing the maths, we need to find a better way to deal with 140 tonnes of plastic per year that is produced to be used once and then discarded (inevitably ending up in landfills and our oceans).
But what are the viable alternatives? Yes, we could all behave a bit more responsibly and recycle more, given today only 9% of plastic is recycled every year. Which still leaves us with some 127 million tonnes to account for. Sounds like a lot, right? Well it is. Imagine this is equivalent to 10,000 buildings like The Shard (EU's largest building located in London) - per year!
While we could (and should) recycle more, we urgently need to take a step back and think about practical ways to avoid using disposable plastic in the first place - not least because a lot of this disposable plastic is not really recyclable.
In spite of the startling numbers of plastic currently in use, reducing their use is very achievable. For example, in 2016 the UK introduced a new plastic bag tax which forced retailers to charge a small fee for them (5 pence per bag). The results were a huge success with 80% reduction in the use of plastic bags for grocery shopping - preventing the production of a whooping 6.5 billion plastic bags!
A tax on plastic bags introduced in the UK
reduced the use of these by 80% in 2016 :)
The ultimate reality is that plastic is cheap, so it won't go away that easily. Also, it has made our lives a lot easier and more comfortable in many ways so we should celebrate the use of plastic that is produced for long term use, and be more conscious about disposable plastic. Until our recycling facilities can deal with a larger volume and variety, the best we can do is avoid it altogether. We can start helping by perhaps carrying our own bottle of water, coffee cup, and replacing disposable accessories such as toothbrushes and straws with their non-plastic counterparts :)