Chapter 1. Greetings from Utopia: Can we have a plastic-free world?

Chapter 1. Greetings from Utopia: Can we have a plastic-free world?

Imagine…

Clean countryside. Rivers and seas that provide a setting for healthy life on land and in the water. Air and drinking water free of toxins from plastic waste. It’s a beautiful vision. Sadly, we are still a long way from having a plastic-free world.

Did you know…

  • that we produce about 400 million tons of plastic worldwide every year?
  • that around 10 million tons of plastic waste end up in the world’s oceans each year and an estimated total of 86 million tons of plastic has ended up there so far?
  • that this plastic waste collects in enormous swirling patches and that one of them in the Pacific is four and half times as big as Germany?
  • that more than 3,000 animal species worldwide suffer and die due to our plastic waste?
  • that the Mediterranean – although it constitutes only one percent of the world’s water bodies – contains seven percent of the microplastics in the world?
  • that these harmful (micro)plastics end up on our plates via the food chain?
  • that Germany is the third largest exporter of plastic waste – after the USA and Japan?
  • that plastic products such as chewing gum, cigarette filters, plastic cups, cutlery, drinking straws, etc. either do not decompose or take centuries to decompose?
  • that the CO2 emissions for a polyester shirt are between 3.8 and 7.1 kilograms?
  • that Coca-Cola produces 88,000,000,000 single-use plastic bottles every year and that 88 billion of them strung together adds up to a distance of 31 times to the moon and back?
  • that the plastic business is extremely lucrative for international companies? This includes the manufacturing of plastic packaging or products as well as business relating to the export of plastic waste overseas.

This blog article will go into some of the background to the plastic crisis.
Starting next week, we’ll present a weekly topic related to how we are confronted with plastic in everyday life. We want to highlight ways to prevent waste “on a small scale” and help prompt a change in thinking.

Recycling – is it the panacea?

Perhaps we dutifully separate our trash and then think that everything’s fine because our plastic waste is recycled. However, the grim reality is that most of the waste we produce is not recycled but exported elsewhere – to Southeast Asia, for example. The garbage dumps are overflowing there and the plastic waste ends up in the environment, in the rivers and, ultimately, in the sea.

Why are there so many plastic products anyway and why are they still being manufactured?

In the second half of the twentieth century, the petrochemical industry discovered that plastic could be manufactured cheaply from oil and natural gas waste products. A powerful industry lobby was formed and it has been continually stoking the demand for these plastics ever since. The increasing mass consumption in the late 1950s and the distant prospect of capturing new markets steered the industry onto a course of saving money. Supply chains were simplified by discarding packaging and bottles after use. This was an initial step to today’s throwaway mentality.

The discussion is repeatedly about how we must recycle more, which makes sense in principle because we need to recycle and reuse valuable, scarce resources such as natural gas and crude oil. Yet there’s a problem with that because we are not able to recycle anything like the amount of plastic that we put into the world. Not only that but it’s not recycled as much as it could be, for economic reasons. It’s cheaper to ship the waste out. These streams of garbage are just relocated to Asia, where some countries become reliant on them. They benefit financially from taking in our waste.

However, things won’t go on like this much longer.

China imposed a ban on the import of plastic waste in 2018. In 2019, Malaysia and some other Asian countries also announced a ban on plastic waste imports.

What can we do about the plastic crisis?

As consumers, we can only counteract this calamity by using fewer plastic products and less plastic packaging. As political people, most importantly, we can strive to get plastic production halted at the source. The plastics industry, which is the actual culprit behind the scenes, has to share the environmental costs and levies for oil and natural gas. The biggest plastic manufacturers are ExxonMobil, BASF, Eni, INEOS and Dow. With sales of almost 420 billion, they dominate the global plastics market, and they plan to further increase production in the coming years. The plentiful and cheap availability of oil and natural gas (e.g. cheap gas from fracking in the USA) ensures that not enough is recycled and a true circular economy never gets underway. Enormous consumer goods giants such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are among the grateful buyers.

Nonetheless, there is a glimmer of hope on the plastic waste-clogged horizon!

All over the world, more and more people are being galvanized into action. There are many groups of activists that openly protest against large enterprises. Consumers are protesting online. More and more people – and even entire cities – are living according to the zero waste principle, or at least trying to generate less plastic waste. It’s a matter of tackling the problem right at the root.

In May 2019, the European Council approved a ban on single-use plastics; from July 2021, it’s going to be implemented in the entire European Union. This ban includes the following, for example:

  • Drinking straws
  • Single-use tableware
  • Cotton buds
  • Balloon sticks
  • Stirrers
  • Packaging made from expanded polystyrene, such as that used when buying hot food or drinks to go.
  • So-called “oxo-degradable plastic”, which is a material that has had metal added and is used for thin bags and packaging, for example, breaking down into tiny microparticles in the garbage.

This regulation includes numerous other promising measures. For example, the cigarette industry must share the waste disposal costs for plastic filters. Our vision is edging closer…but there is still a very long way to go.

How can we make our own everyday lives more plastic-free?

Next week, we’ll continue with some ideas for life with less plastic. We’d be delighted to have you stop by and check out our news again.

Do you have any tips for our readers on living a life that’s as plastic-free as possible? We welcome any comments and entries in our guestbook!

 

References:

If you’d like to find out more about this topic, we recommend the following sources, on which we’ve based the information in this article:
https://www.boell.de/en/plasticatlas

The entire Plastic Atlas in PDF form, which is available here as a free download:
Ganzer Plastikatlas als PDF, der hier gratis zum Download verfügbar ist:

Video from the Heinrich Böll Foundation:
Video der Heinrich Böll Stiftung:

Information about the EU single-use plastics ban (in German):
Informationen zum EU-Einwegplastikverbot:

https://link.hoerbert.com/T1JBu

 

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