Since the year 2000, we’ve used more plastic than in all the years before.
On average, we each use 53 kilograms of plastic a year and generate a collective total of more than 300 million tonnes of plastic waste.
By 2030, this is predicted to double, with the brunt of the impacts expected to hit our ocean.
These are just some of the figures to come from WWF’s global plastic report, solving plastics through accountability, released today.
The report urges policy makers to draft a global, legally binding agreement to stop plastic entering marine environments, and to establish strong national targets to cut down on plastic use.
About 40 per cent of plastics we consume today are single-use — things like cutlery, plates, food containers, electronics packaging.
Single-use plastics simply have to go, according to Richard Leck, WWF’s Head of Oceans and Sustainable Development.
“In terms of the calls to action, absolutely the ban around single-use plastics is very important,” he said.
“There needs to be incentives for producers to use products that aren’t single use.”
And WWF isn’t alone.
This week, Hobart City Council voted 8-4 in favour of phasing out single of plastics by 2020, and a Senate inquiry last year recommended a national ban to be implemented over the next five years.
In what he described at the time as a “rare display of political consensus”, Greens Senator and inquiry chairman Peter Whish-Wilson said the Senate had “laid down a clear pathway for Australia to create a circular economy and stop piles of plastic, paper and glass being stockpiled or heading to landfill”.
But what would that actually look like?
Single-use plastics have become so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine doing things any other way.
Somewhere along the line we’ve constructed a system in which it makes more sense to mine the oil to make the plastic cutlery to use once and throw away, than it does to put our steel cutlery in a dishwasher.
The way forward is to transition to a circular economy, where everything is made to be reused, according to Candice Quartermain, founder and CEO of Circular Economy Australia.
“The fact that we’re seeing stats coming out now saying there’s going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2025 is insane,” she said.
“Circular economy is changing the economy entirely as we know it. It’s really about saying we can’t carry on the way that we are, something has to change, and the focus needs to be on quality and finding more effective ways of doing things.”
In creating plastic we’ve effectively designed a material that is too good. It’s cheap, versatile and lasts a long time.
To help shift us towards a circular economy, single-use plastic needs to be more expensive to produce, according to Mr Leck.
For that to happen, producers need to be accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products.
For instance, a soft-drink bottle floating in the ocean must be the property of the company that made the bottle, and they must have factored in the cost of retrieving the bottle into their business model.
“The issue around plastic is the classic example of ‘who pays?’ At the moment, the polluters aren’t paying,” he said.
“We have to make sure that the cost of plastics to nature is incorporated into the price.”
While plastic is cheap for manufactures to produce, the UN Environment Program estimates ocean plastic pollution costs around $US8 billion each year through impacts on things like fisheries, tourism and maritime operators.
But if manufacturers cleaning up their waste sounds far-fetched, it’s already happening in parts of Europe, according to waste management expert Helen Millicer.
She’s been touring Europe on a Churchill Fellowship, and said parts of Europe are already making huge strides toward achieving a circular economy.
“Companies that don’t design or enable products to be reused or recycled, are penalised,” she said.
The European Commission is now phasing out plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws and drink stirrers in all member states. Single-use plastic bottles with detachable lids are also being banned.
A European Commission statement has outlined a shift in responsibility from consumers and onto producers for the entire lifespan of their products, from their production right through to disposal.
“Producers will help cover the costs of waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness-raising measures for food containers, packets and wrappers, drinks containers and cups, tobacco products with filters, wet wipes, balloons, and lightweight plastic bags,” an EU Commission statement said.
“The industry will also be given incentives to develop less-polluting alternatives for these products.”
For its part the Australian Senate report included a stipulation that the Federal Government have mandatory targets for the inclusion of recycled materials in its procurement process.
Recycling industry leaders have previously criticised states and the Federal Government for using virgin materials in projects like road and infrastructure building, while recycled stockpiles have been growing higher.
And Senator Whish-Wilson called for more incentives for businesses to use recycled products, after last year’s inquiry.
“Without incentivising domestic markets for the end-use of these waste streams it will keep piling up at rubbish tips around the country,” he said.
Incentives are needed to balance the market.
According to WWF, the cost to recycle plastic in Europe is almost double what that plastic is then worth.
While market-based mechanisms will be the most effective method for driving change, some US based artists have been taking a more conceptual approach to the issue.
The size of the installations are equal to the average amount of plastic cups, bottles and straws that each American uses in a year.
Feeling frustrated by the lack of action by her own government, Ms Cruder said she wanted to make something “so freaking big” they couldn’t ignore it.
“We’re not blaming anyone,” Ms Cruder said.
“We’re asking people to pay attention to their behaviours and examine them, [but] I think most people don’t know where to start.”
While reimagining a world without single-use plastics might be hard, doubling the world’s plastic pollution by 2030 will be worse, according to Mr Leck.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean contains about 78,000 tonnes of plastics, according to the latest estimates.
It’s one of five massive ocean greys rapidly accumulating plastic waste.
“We use the analogy that, imagine if there was about 8 million tonnes of oil being pumped into the oceans each year, there would be a massive public outcry,” Mr Leck said.
“If the global plastics system is left to function as it does currently then the plastic pollution crisis risks spiralling out of control.”
Three months after two of the largest supermarket chains banned plastic grocery bags, an estimated 1.5 billion bags have been prevented from use, the Australian Associated Press reported, citing the National Retail Association.
Overall, the bans introduced by Coles and Woolworths last summer resulted in an 80 percent reduction in the country’s overall use of the single-use item, the retail group revealed.
“Indeed, some retailers are reporting reduction rates as high as 90 per cent,” National Retail Association’s David Stout told the news service.
Initially, some customers felt “bag rage” about having to BYO-bag or fork over 15 Australian cents (11 cents) to buy a reusable one. Woolworths execs blamed slumping sales on “customers adjusting” to the plastic bag ban. Coles even briefly backed down on the bag ban and caught a lot of flak from environmentally conscious shoppers for giving away reusable plastic bags.
But the good news is that it seems most Aussies haven’t found it too hard to adjust to the change—and that’s fantastic for our landfills, oceans and the greater environment, which have become dumping grounds for our plastic waste.
Stout applauded the progress but shared hopes that the Australian government will get behind a nationwide ban. New South Wales, the nation’s most populous state, is the only state that has not legislated to phase out single-use plastic bags.
There has been a growing movement to ban or tax these bags. Around the world, at least 32 countries have bans in place, according to reusable bag company ReuseThisBag.
“We’re still seeing a lot of small to medium bags being used, especially in the food category, and whilst I get some comfort that the majors have done this voluntarily I think there still needs to be a ban in place,” he told the Australian Associated Press.
“For business, for the environment, for the consumer and of course even for councils which have to work to remove these things from landfills, there’s a multitude of benefits on a whole to doing this.”
Plastics have much to offer as a modern convenience, but lack of responsible plastic waste management habits can lead to potentially harmful environmental effects. Past environmental initiatives revealed a lack of understanding about youth attitudes towards pro‐environmental issues. Plastic, an online public environmental promotional campaign, encouraged youth to recognize the importance of, adopt positive attitudes towards and subsequently adopt the practice of responsible plastic management. We propose the Temporal Incentives Model of Social Influence to guide social campaign design. A pre‐post quantitative research design showed that the pre‐contemplation, contemplation and preparation stages progressed significantly after the campaign. The findings suggest that stimuli incorporating specialized information and small action steps allow migration to successive stages. With the strong presence of internet culture among youth, the online medium was found effective in altering the attitudes of the campaign target audience, while exposure to the campaign messages proved useful in encouraging environmental learning among youth.
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