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Tackling the plastic problem

Srinivas Mazumdaru
June 1, 2018

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.

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Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Nelson

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." 

Read more: Works of art made with plastic trash

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.

Infografik Karte Woher kommt der Plastikmüll in den Weltmeeren? ENG

Very convenient

The reasons for its ubiquitous presence in modern-day life are manifold. Plastic is not only flexible and lightweight but also very strong. It is more hard-wearing than materials such as wood, metal and paper, and its versatility means it is good for insulation and resistant to hazardous substances. 

"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, as the world is gradually beginning to see, the material doesn't just disappear. 

China: No more foreign garbage

When plastic, which requires decades and even centuries 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. They end up in fish, birds and other animals, thus entering the seafood consumed by humans, and thereby, our own bodies. Scientists estimate there are up to 236,000 tons of microplastics in our seas. What they don't yet know, is the impact it has on our health.

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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. 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.

US-based Jambeck Research Group estimates that Indonesia deposits 3.2 million tons of plastic into the ocean every year, making it the world's second-biggest plastic polluter behind China.

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 said, adding that rising standards of living in Asia is fueling consumer habits. "The annual growth of the plastic industry in some Asian countries is higher than their GDP growth."

Ruffo says we have a long way to go before Asia or any part of the world moves away from plastic entirely.

"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.

How can Indonesia avoid plastic garbage?

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."