The tough task of tackling the plastic problem | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 01.06.2018
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The tough task of tackling the plastic problem

The EU has proposed banning some everyday plastic products, citing the growing amount of harmful plastic litter in the oceans. But without proper action in Asia, the world's plastic problem is unlikely to go away.

By 2050, the world's oceans will have more plastic than fish with a potentially devastating impact on marine life and the health of the ocean. This is a warning repeatedly voiced by experts, pointing to an estimated 8 million tons of plastic debris that is annually dumped into the ocean worldwide.    

The European Commission (EC) wants to act to resolve the problem. It has proposed banning single-use plastic products, like straws, stirs, plates and cotton buds, and replacing them with more environmentally sustainable materials. The EC's plastic strategy also aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030.

"Right now we are seeing growing momentum around the issue of ocean plastic — whether it's the EU's proposal or smaller-scale measures at the municipal level," Susan Ruffo, managing director of international initiatives at Ocean Conservancy, told DW. "All of these are critical in raising public awareness and also signaling to industry that they need to help solve the problem." 

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Some critics, however, contend that the Commission's proposals may not prove to be of much use until action is taken in Asia to curb plastic waste. They argue that Asian countries dump more plastic into oceans than all other regions of the world combined.

Whether it is in Europe or in Asia, it's hard not to observe that plastic is everywhere. It's used in all sorts of day-to-day products, such as toothpaste tubes, chairs, toys, electrical appliances and electronic gadgets like computers and mobile phones, among other things.

Very convenient

The reasons for the ubiquitous presence of plastic in modern-day life are manifold. Plastic is a material that is not only flexible and lightweight but also very strong. It is more hard-wearing than materials such as wood, metal and paper. Furthermore, plastic is versatile, good for insulation and resistant to hazardous substances. That's why plastics are regarded as convenient and useful.

"There are significant advantages in the use of plastics compared to other products," said Surendra Patawari Borad, a businessman who runs a recycling company in Belgium and the United States and chairs the plastics committee at the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR).

"Plastic products are lightweight, moldable, easily transportable, durable, easy to handle and hygienic. Besides, there are very few economic alternatives to plastics," he told DW.

Despite their durability, however, plastics are often used in disposable products such as supermarket carrier bags, bottles and cutlery. And the material does not easily biodegrade or break down into the environment. 

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As a result, the world has increasingly witnessed the flipside of the plastic's strength and longevity in recent decades. Millions of tons of plastic trash end up in the oceans every year, polluting them and endangering the health of not only marine life but also humans.

When plastic, which requires decades to decompose, starts to break down, tiny fragments of the material either spread across the ocean's surface or mix into the seafloor and beaches. It ends up in fish, birds and other animals, thus entering the seafood consumed by humans and affecting our food supply.

More and more plastic

Nowhere is the plastic problem more pronounced than in Asia, where many beaches are littered with trash and landfill sites are overflowing with items that could take hundreds of years to decompose. According to a 2015 report by Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based environmental NGO, five Asian countries — namely China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — dump more plastic into oceans than the rest of the world combined.

In Indonesia, for instance, 3.2 million tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year, estimated US-based Jambeck Research Group. The Southeast Asian country is the world's second-biggest plastic polluter behind China.

All the trillions of plastic bags, bottles and utensils, among others, are likely to remain in the oceans and landfills for centuries.

The possibility of these countries moving away from plastics in the near future is remote, says Borad. "The per capita consumption of plastics in Asia (excluding Japan) is around 40 kilograms compared with per capita consumption of 140 kilograms in the Western world," he pointed out.

"The consumption in Asia is already on an increasing curve as the Asian economies are growing and thus their standard of living. The annual growth of the plastic industry in some Asian countries is higher than their GDP growth."

Ocean Conservancy's Ruffo says we have a long way to go before Asia or any part of the world moves completely away from plastic. "We can all start now by eliminating or reducing our use of unnecessary single-use items, but we need a full range of solutions to solve the ocean plastic problem — from redesign of materials and products to effective waste collection and recycling, to cleaning up what is on our beaches," she underlined.

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Need for innovations

Experts say Asian governments need to educate people on how to handle plastics in an environmentally friendly manner and put in place proper waste collection and recycling facilities.

"Governments should come out with long-term recycling policies and recycling targets for plastic scrap. Education about the importance of recycling must be imparted through schools, media, municipal and religious bodies as well as NGOs," said BIR's Borad. 

Although Asia contributes more toward plastic pollution, Europe and other regions, too, have played a part in the problem. "The reality is that every country worldwide relies heavily on plastic for a number of applications," said Ruffo.

Observers say Europe's plastic strategy has so far relied heavily on exporting its trash to Asia, with EU nations shipping millions of tons of their plastic garbage to countries like China. But as part of its efforts to clean up China's environment, Beijing decided to ban imports of plastic waste from the start of 2018.    

This move redirected much of Europe's scrap toward Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam and Malaysia, triggering concerns that it will complicate waste disposal efforts in the region and cause the same environmental problems that prompted China to act. Beijing's move has also led to a garbage glut in some European countries, forcing them to increase their domestic recycling capacities.

The Commission's proposal to ban single-use plastic products comes against this backdrop. Experts say a ban is just one of the ways to solve the issue for a short period of time, but it may not be construed as the solution to the problem.

"Banning certain single-use plastic products for which there are alternatives is a sensible step, but studies show that to make a real dent on the ocean plastic problem we also need to invest in waste collection and management in developing countries," stressed Ruffo.

This view is shared by Borad. "The ban may serve in reducing the litter for the time being, but sooner than later we must find long-term sustainable solutions, focusing on better recycling and waste management systems," the analyst said, adding: "I believe that the proposal to ban may overshadow the need for innovations to redesign the recycled products with zero leftover."

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