With the global plastic production expected to increase to a staggering 1.2 billion tonnes by 2050, it is not surprising that the plastic industry has been described as one of the most essential building blocks of our economy today. This exponential growth will undoubtedly play a vital role in the global economy, however if the plastic value chain continues the way it is, it will have the potential to cause even more detrimental effects on the environment. Changes to our sustainability agendas have to happen, starting with the future of plastics.
Here are my top 3 reasons for rethinking plastics:
1. Greater than aviation: the huge carbon footprint
The carbon footprint of producing plastic is phenomenal, with more than 90% produced from virgin fossil fuel sources. The huge dependency on oil is leading to plastics being responsible for approximately 6% of the current global oil consumption, which staggeringly, is equivalent to that of the aviation sector. This, as we can all imagine, gives rise to excessive greenhouse gas emissions and if the expected surge in plastic production is to happen, the already huge carbon impact will become even more significant. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, plastics will be responsible for nearly 15% of the global carbon emissions. This predicted increase will lead to plastics overtaking aviation, which is currently accountable for 12% of the global carbon emissions.
2. ‘Take-make-dispose’: low recyclability rates
Plastics have a very low rate of recycling and reuse compared to other material mainstreams. This is mainly as a result of our economy being built around the linear trend of ‘take-make-dispose’, with many plastic products designed for single use only. Consequently, an enormous amount of waste is produced with more plastics ending up in landfills or incinerated. According to the World Economic Forum, as little as 30% of the plastics produced in the EU were recycled in 2014, leading to 25 million tonnes of post-consumer plastic waste. Many other countries are beating the UK in the recycling race, such as Germany and Luxembourg, with recycling rates as high as 65%.
3. More plastic in the ocean than fish: the environmental leakage
The huge amount of waste produced from plastics is causing global waste disposal systems to become increasingly challenged, leading to a large proportion of plastic waste ending up in the environment. It is estimated each year, over 8 million tonnes leak into the ocean, which according to the World Economic Forum, is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. Plastic packaging is estimated to be the biggest culprit for environmental leakage, due to its size, weight and low value making it prone to uncontrolled disposal. If no action is taken, predictions are that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (World Economic Forum).
The production and use of plastics goes hand in hand with the packaging industry, with nearly half of the global plastics produced used for packaging. Businesses must start to actively evaluate the environmental impacts of the plastic packaging they purchase or produce and additionally the benefits of alternative products, such as disposable plastic packaging. Leading businesses in this area have already taken such steps, for example, Coca Cola creating the PlantBottle – a plastic bottle made entirely out of plants. However, this is only the beginning. We expect that in the next five years, this will become a mainstream assessment of all packaging products – the time to take action is now.