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Why we will never be able to recycle or incinerate away ocean pollution

environmental impact

The amount of plastic entering the ocean is projected to grow four-fold by 2050. Transformative changes, including moving away from single-use towards re-useable packaging, are needed to save our oceans, say Vincent Kneefel and John Duncan.

Ocean plastic is killing millions of marine mammals, seabirds and many other life forms. Images of turtles eating plastic bags floating in the sea, whales starved by several kilograms of plastic debris in their stomachs and dolphins entangled in abandoned fishing nets have become iconic symbols of the impact of ocean plastic pollution.

It is estimated that a disconcerting 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans every year, and these numbers are projected to increase four-fold by 2050. Marine plastic pollution also seriously affects fisheries, aquaculture, recreational activities, and tourism and is estimated to result in a 1- 5 per cent decline in the benefits that humans derive from oceans—an annual cost of up to $2.5 trillion.

The leakage of plastic waste into the ocean is a global issue with a multitude of challenges which vary considerably between geographies. The complexity of the issue demands a holistic, multi-level, multi-actor approach across the full life-cycle of the plastics value chain. There is no silver bullet or new wonder material that will solve all our problems quickly; we need to rethink the systems that got us here in the first place.

Recycling alone cannot solve the problem While improving recycling systems is fundamental to improving the plastic pollution problem, it is important to recognise that we have only managed to recycle 9 per cent of plastic ever produced and we will never be able to recycle ourselves out of this problem, even a five-fold increase in recycling will still leave half of global plastic unrecycled.

Part of the problem is the economics of current recycling systems. As long as companies are not held accountable for the full life cycle costs of plastic pollution (including the significant costs to nature and society), recycling rates will simply remain linked to the price of oil, making it cheaper for companies to use virgin plastics instead of recycled plastics.

While consumer behaviour is a contributing factor to the success of recycling systems, at present, the fundamental economics of most plastic recycling industries simply do not work and in most countries the majority of all plastic produced is not collected or recycled because it is not financially viable to do so.

Current waste management systems unable to stem the flow An estimated 75 per cent of land-based ocean plastic pollution comes from uncollected household waste, while the remaining 25 per cent leaks from within the waste-management system itself. The total amount of waste is growing rapidly. The World Bank estimates that waste generation will increase by 70 per cent from 2.01 billion tonnes in 2016 to 3.40 billion tonnes in 2050.

With at least one third of global waste currently being mismanaged, it is clear that waste management systems cannot deal with current waste volumes, let alone the significant increases projected. While it is critical that every country has proper waste management infrastructure, the system at the moment is incapable of handling ever-increasing volumes of waste.

Incineration is not a silver bullet

There are a number of people who argue that incineration can address all of our plastic pollution problems, however, this is a very myopic view which fails to understand the challenges and tradeoffs associated with this approach. It is important to recognise that even when burnt, plastic creates several other forms of pollution, which are poorly regulated in most developing countries around the world. Plastic production is also one of the fastest growing uses of fossil fuels, while waste incineration also releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases. By 2050, based on current projections, production and incineration of plastics will account for 10 – 13 per cent of the annual carbon budget (1.5C budget).

Accountability from main stakeholders is key

The trade in plastic across international borders remains largely unregulated and most plastic value chains do not have a global feedback loop to hold upstream stakeholders accountable for their products after the point of sale. As of now, there is no universal governance mechanism or regulatory body to ensure transparency and accountability of actors across the entire plastics value chain. Plastic pollution is a global problem that needs a global regulatory response that increases accountability from governments through elements such as the establishment of national reduction targets, monitoring requirements and harmonised global standards and definitions.

A fundamental change in mindset from key stakeholders is required in order to establish the foundation for transformative change. We need to start at the top of the waste hierarchy and prioritise the following principles:

  • Eliminating unnecessary and problematic plastic packaging through redesign and innovation and increasing recycled content in plastic packaging
  • Moving from single-use to reuse where possible
  • Ensuring all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable, or compostable
  • Increasing the collection, reuse, recycling or composting of plastic packaging
World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) No Plastic in Nature initiative has three pillars: policy, business and cities. Through our policy advocacy, we support the creation of a global binding international agreement that increases accountability for all stakeholders on this issue. We engage with businesses to improve transparency and transform the plastic value chain by reducing use, redesigning packaging, increasing reuse and recycling, and the use of sustainable alternative materials where appropriate. Working with cities in Southeast Asian countries that have the highest plastic leakage rates, we are supporting the development of more effective waste management practices.

Effective, coordinated global actions and solutions are needed to address marine plastic pollution- only then can we achieve healthy oceans, for a healthy planet and society.


This article was originally published By Vincent Kneefel and John Duncan,

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