Plastic Slashing

You’ve likely seen pictures showing mountains of waste and beaches covered with it – mostly plastic waste.  The problem is so immense, I feel helpless to try to solve it.  However, I remember going to amusement parks as a teenager and finding them less fun because they were “dumps.”

Disney was aware of what happens when a place gets that way, and so they have employees constantly walking around and picking up even the smallest pieces of litter.

In the biography, “The Big Mac,” a story of how Ray Krok built the MacDonald’s empire, he noticed that the burger joint run by the MacDonald brothers in San Bernardino, CA, was doing a far better business than similar burger joints along the same road.  He canceled his other commitments and, for a few days, observed what they did.  The difference:

 

They had staff clean the rest rooms every

twenty minutes … as well as the eating

area and parking lot.  Families would go,

repeatedly, to a place that was clean, and

not to a place that began looking like a dump.

 

If you think about places you might go on a vacation, when a resort or spa or park or beach begins looking like a dump, you’ll likely go elsewhere next time.  So … we’ve been sending our trash – including vast volumes of plastics – to countries we’d already likely not visit, anyway.  The problem:

 

As we trash Planet Earth and

make it increasingly into a dump,

we can’t just go across the street.

 

Here’s a report of some new major efforts;  I’ll add comments afterwards about things we can do as individuals.

•      •      •      •      •      •

Europe’s Drive to Slash

Plastic Waste Moves

Into High Gear

 

As part of a broader effort to create a circular econo-

my that reduces waste and greenhouse gas emissions,

the European Union will ban a host of throwaway

plastic items next month and is working to create an

expansive and lucrative market for recycled plastics.

 

PAUL HOCKENOS

YALE Envrionment 360

JUNE 8, 2021

 

In Europe, beachgoers have grown accustomed to the dispiriting sight of plastic garbage strewn along shorelines. Indeed, 85 percent of the continent’s saltwater beaches and seas exceed pollution standards on marine litter. The Mediterranean Sea is the most defiled of all, with researchers collecting an average of 274 pieces of plastic refuse per 100 meters of shoreline. And beneath the waves, microplastics have turned coastal waters into toxic “plastic soups.”

In an all-out push to clean up Europe’s beaches — one plank in the European Union’s trailblazing efforts to address the almost 28 million U.S. tons of plastic waste it generates annually — a ban comes into effect July 3 that halts the sale in EU markets of the 10 plastic products that most commonly wash up on the continent’s shores. These include, among other items, plastic bottle caps, cutlery, straws and plates, as well as Styrofoam food and beverage containers.

The ban is the most visible sign of Europe’s efforts to curtail plastics pollution by creating the world’s first-ever circular plastics regime. By the end of this decade, this will lead to a ban on throwaway plastics, the creation of a comprehensive reuse system for all other plastics, and the establishment of an expansive and potentially lucrative European market for recycled plastics.

A raft of EU measures is now driving investments and innovation toward circular solutions that, according to experts and EU officials, will come to define Europe’s low-carbon economy and enhance its global competitiveness. A circular economy is one in which products and materials are kept in use along their entire life cycle, from design and manufacturing to reuse or recycling. In contrast to the current, linear system, products don’t end up in the rubbish bin, but rather are reintroduced into the production process.

Under the EU Plastics Strategy, put forward in 2018, waste guidelines will overhaul the way plastic products are designed, used and recycled. All plastic packaging on the EU market must be recyclable by 2030, and the use of microplastics circumscribed.

The measures are the toughest in the world and have already pushed plastic packaging recycling rates in the EU to an all-time high of 41.5 percent — three times that of the United States. The EU has set a target for recycling 50 percent of plastic packaging by 2025, a goal that now looks within reach. And in 2025, a separate collection target of 77 percent will be in place for plastic bottles, increasing to 90 percent by 2029.

This overarching regime will rely on the widespread adoption of extended producer responsibility schemes, which means that if a company introduces packaging or packaged goods into a country’s market, that firm remains responsible for the full cost of the collection, transportation, recycling or incineration of its products. In effect, the polluter pays.

And as of this year, EU companies may no longer unload plastic waste on countries in the developing world such as Malaysia, Vietnam, India and Indonesia. By exporting plastic waste, the EU had essentially been fobbing off the scourge — about 1.7 million U.S. tons of it a year — a sizeable quantity of which was burned in the open air, dumped in landfills, or simply tossed into the sea. Now, Europe is forced to tackle the entirety of the waste burden itself.

 

“The EU is taking the creation of a

circular economy very seriously,

and plastics are at the center of it,”

 

,,, said Henning Wilts, director of circular economy at Germany’s Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

Elsewhere in the world, governments and the private sector are responding to public ire about plastic pollution, though with much less effect than in Europe. Worldwide, only 14 to 18 percent of plastics are recycled (less than half the European average), and less than 10 percent are recycled in the U.S. According to Greenpeace, although many governments and multinational companies boast high-profile pledges to make their products more circular, much of it is greenwashing.  According to a Greenpeace report:

 

“Many types of commonly used plastic packaging

are not recyclable, and are being landfilled, incin-

erated, or exported without verification of recycling.”

 

The U.S., which generates the largest amount of plastic waste in the world, is awash in waste now that China — the largest manufacturer of plastic — no longer accepts imported waste; many U.S. cities end up pitching plastic waste into landfills or burning it. Congress has commissioned the National Academies of Sciences to conduct a sweeping review of the U.S. contribution to plastic waste, due out at the end of this year.

Europe’s battle against plastic waste will help the EU reach its ambitious climate target of slashing greenhouse emissions by 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The EU estimates that the drop in oil-based plastics production could shave 3.4 million tons of CO2-equivalent off Europe’s carbon footprint and pre-empt environmental damages that would run to 22 billion euros by 2030.  Clara Löw, an analyst at the Öko-Institute, a German think tank, said:

 

“The 10-items ban is big. It’s not greenwashing.

There are many more measures afoot within

the European Green Deal to rein in plastics

and establish circularity as the cornerstone

principle of Europe’s plastics economy.

Even most Europeans aren’t aware of

how much is happening right now.”

 

Critics note, however, that the EU’s showy 10-item ban covers just one percent of Europe’s plastic production. They also point out that the total quantity of plastic waste generation in Europe has not fallen — something the new measures aim to reverse.

Zero Waste Europe says that plastic waste generation in Europe will drop only when sanctions like the 10-items ban and other measures take full effect.

Carmine Trecroci, an economist and recycling expert at the University of Brescia in Italy, said that external factors like the price of oil have a major impact; as long as oil is cheap, which it has been in recent years, so too is plastics production, making it all the harder to rein in. The plastics sector in the EU is big business, employing 1.5 million people and generating 350 billion euros in 2019. Trecroci said the powerful Italian plastics lobby fought fiercely to block the 10-item ban, and then to slow and dilute it. In the end, however, the EU approved the ban.

While EU countries still produce large quantities of plastic, the amount of post-consumer plastic waste sent to recycling has soared by 92 percent since 2006, according to PlasticsEurope, a European association of plastics manufacturers. Meanwhile, landfilling — by far the dirtiest waste treatment option — has fallen by 54 percent.

Since January 1 plastic producers in the EU have had to pay a levy of 800 euros per metric ton of non-recycled plastic packaging waste. Pressure from Brussels has also resulted in voluntary measures in the private sector: Coca-Cola Europe, for example, is well on its way to manufacturing 50 percent of its plastic bottles and cans from recycled content.

According to EU, only 5 percent of plastic packaging’s value currently remains in the economy after first use. This, it estimates, costs the European economy between 70 and 105 billion euros a year.  Löw said:

 

“A closed loop is when every material,

every product and its components will

be used as long as possible, repaired

or refurbished if broken, [and] recycled

into secondary raw material several

times without losing material quality.”

 

Wilts of the Wuppertal Institute added …

 

“Europe is a continent with few raw

materials, like oil and metals, so a

recycling industry that circumvents

the need for virgin raw materials is

an industrial strategy as much as

an environmental program.”

 

He and others say that recycling and recovery facilities will propel recycling in Europe as plastic waste becomes more valuable, waste-to-energy incineration is properly taxed, and more products are standardized for recyclability.  Wilts said:

 

“There’s going to be a doubling of sorting

and recycling facilities in the next five years.”

 

Europe’s new plastics economy dates back to the mid-1990s, when the principle of extended producer responsibility was enshrined in EU law. Extended producer responsibility (EPR), argues a Zero Waste Europe paper, is “crucial to incentivize the redesign of products with circularity in mind … Ensuring producers bear 100 percent of the cleanup costs will encourage the manufacturer to work with municipalities to ensure high collection of their products.”

Trecroci notes that EPR on a significant scale is already a reality in Northern and Central Europe. In Germany, companies pay fees totaling 1.5 billion euros a year that finance the transport, sorting and recycling of their waste end-materials.  Trecroci said:

 

“In southern Europe, we’re at an

earlier stage, but EPR will apply here,

too, in full, in a few years’ time.”

 

Also, in 2019 the EU adopted a directive that by 2025 all EU countries integrate 25 percent recycled plastic in clear plastic bottles and 30 percent in all plastic beverage bottles by 2030. This mandatory minimum — already in force in Germany, Denmark and Norway — adds value to plastic waste, since plastic producers need it and will pay for it.  Wilts said:

 

“This creates a demand for

high-quality recycling material.”

 

Soon, the same principle — minimum amounts of recycling content — will apply to the automotive and building sectors, he said.

The extensive private sector network needed to create this new circular economy is only now gaining momentum, according to Wilts.  He said:

 

“Eventually, the recycling industry

is going to produce the basic ma-

terials for industrial manufacturing.

But we’re not quite there yet.”

•      •      •      •      •      •

 The first thing that came to me as I read this report was its need to identify the different types of plastics.  For instance, thermo-set resins – which we use for handles on pots & pans – just don’t wear out.  But the thin plastic bags that stores use, can be recycled by outfits such as Trex, and turned into park benches and excellent building materials.

I often buy Smoothies – which are delivered in thin Styrofoam containers.  But I can’t think of a way to recycle them.  And the store that makes my smoothie won’t, for many reasons, use a container I might bring with me.  That means I either have to find another source for smoothies, or write to the company that’s making them, to see if they’ll change, or go elsewhere.

There’s a long-standing pedagogical debate about whether we change what we do because the new way promises a better outcome, or because the existing way is creating serious problems.  I remember my mother telling me how she could never quit smoking.  But the day she was diagnosed with TB – even though her doctor said it wasn’t related to her smoking – she quit instantly!  The question, then, is …

 

How close do we need to come to the

“edge of the cliff” before we take positive action?

 

I think we can all list specific things we can do to help eliminate this huge problem of plastic waste.  What makes sense for each of us?  And … what’s it going to take for us to do them?

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