Almost 80 percent of the plastic waste ever produced now lies in landfills and dumps or is littered in the environment. To combat this, more than 60 countries have introduced bans or levies on single-use plastic products. But are such actions an effective response?
Erik Solheim was the Executive Director of United Nations Environment from 2016 to 2018. He was previously chair of the Development Assistance Committee at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and was Norway’s Minister of the Environment and International Development from 2007 to 2012.
Since early 2017, U.N. Environment has been campaigning to reduce the impact of plastic pollution. Its goal is to eliminate “the excessive, wasteful usage of single-use plastic.” We asked former Executive Director Erik Solheim to explain why the organization is encouraging governments worldwide to consider banning or discouraging the use of single-use plastic items.
Professor Richard Thompson
Professor Richard Thompson is a marine biologist and Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, England. He has contributed to the government legislation of the United Kingdom on single-use carrier bags and the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and given evidence to parliamentary inquiries on the issue of plastic waste and pollution.
Professor Richard Thompson has studied the impact of plastic waste pollution for three decades. His work has been instrumental in revealing the prevalence of small plastic particles – microplastics – in the environment, and demonstrating their impact on animals and ecosystems. Thompson believes the world needs to take a smarter approach to the challenge of plastic waste.
Creating Chemistry: Why does the world need to take more action to tackle plastic waste?
Solheim: Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. It is not only harming plants and animals on land and at sea alike, but also hurting the economies of many coastal communities, while potentially also harming human health. It’s also a symptom of a wider problem, which is the totally unsustainable and wasteful way in which so many of us live our lives.
Several countries have introduced bans or reduction targets on various plastic products. What is the main aim of these?
Solheim: It’s a response to what has become a visible blight and a serious pollution issue. In many cases it’s a response to public pressure, because many people are changing their thinking and behavior around single-use plastic. It’s a message to the private sector to innovate and come up with design solutions or alternatives. It’s also a recognition that in order to solve the problem of plastic pollution in the long term, it is imperative that we have clear policy leadership.
In many cases we simply don’t need single-use plastics, and they can be eliminated.”
Erik Solheim, the former Executive Director of U.N. Environment
What environmental, economic and social changes have these efforts brought?
Solheim: Rwanda was one of the first countries in the world to ban plastic bags. The country is now spotless compared to many of its neighbors. I’m convinced that’s one of the many factors that contributes to its success in attracting businesses and investors. In Kenya, which more recently introduced a ban, slaughterhouses are no longer finding plastic bags in the stomachs of cows, and safari guides are happier because the national parks no longer look like landfills. In Nairobi, there was less urban flooding this year too – even though the rainy season was more intense. There were no plastic bags blocking drainage systems. These are gains for tourism, for business, for urban safety, and for public health.
What role can different stakeholders play in reducing plastic waste pollution?
Solheim: Every stakeholder has a role to play. Governments need to pass robust legislation that incentivizes both behavior change and innovation. Consumers should take steps to reduce their plastic footprints, and also use their voices and wallets to pressure retailers to do the same – for instance by eliminating unnecessary plastic packaging, of which there is clearly far too much. Both product manufacturers and material manufacturers need to take a life cycle approach when they design their products, and stop designing plastic items that are designed to be thrown away immediately after use. To help all these actors play a more effective role, the short answer is that they need to realize the severity of the problem and start acting accordingly. That would be a very important first step.
Would improving waste management contribute to solving the problem?
Solheim: Waste management needs to be improved, yes, especially in the developing world, and in the field of recycling and repurposing, but it’s not the magic solution. Plastic waste is a pollution problem, and the polluter needs to change. I would also love to see the plastics industry facing up to the fact that if they really want to be a part of the solution, they need to get away from single-use plastics.
How far do alternatives to plastic help solve these challenges?
Solheim: In many cases we simply don’t need single-use plastics, and they can be eliminated. In other cases, there are sustainable alternatives, including plastic products that can be reused. I am not against plastic. It’s a miracle product. It’s us who need to change how we use it and how we manage it throughout its life cycle.
Do you believe we can reduce the environmental impact of improperly discarded plastic waste in the near future?
Solheim: I am optimistic in general, and particularly when it comes to plastic pollution. There is so much happening already, and it is happening very fast. When a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants was first introduced in my home country of Norway, a lot of people said that this was insane, and that it was destined to fail. Now, this has become the norm. I think we are seeing the same kind of change in attitude when it comes to plastic pollution.
Creating Chemistry: Should we stop making and using plastic products?
Thompson: Plastics are not the enemy. They bring many societal benefits and have the potential to reduce our footprint on the planet. The reason why global production of plastic has risen from 5 million tons per year in the 1950s to 300 million tons today is because plastic is durable, inexpensive, lightweight and versatile. The problem is that while our use of plastics has increased so much, our ability to manage those products at the end of their life has not kept pace.
Professor Richard Thompson, a marine biologist and Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, England.
Are plastic bans an effective way to reduce the impact of waste plastics on the environment? Are there any real success stories?
Thompson: No country has imposed a total ban on single-use plastics, but several have banned or restricted some items, like plastic carrier bags. The evidence for the effectiveness of those bans is not always available, but some places, such as Wales and Northern Ireland, have studied their impact. Their experience shows that while there is some substitution – for example, sales of dustbin bags increased – overall, consumption went down. There’s also evidence from beach-cleaning that there are fewer plastic bags on beaches in these regions, although obviously it takes a while for those effects to emerge because of the persistence of plastics in the environment.
I don’t think plastic pollution is a problem that can be fixed with a single explosion of action.”
How should we tackle the problem? What kind of measures would you suggest?
Thompson: The important thing here is to think about different use cases. There are some single-use plastic items that we could manage without. Given what we now know about the effect of plastic, I think it is the responsibility of all us to say, If I don’t need it, perhaps I should avoid it. But there are other cases where if you do the cost-benefit and environmental impact analyses properly, you find that plastic is the best material for the job. In those cases, our task is to make sure we are designing for circularity, and thinking about what is going to happen at the end of the product’s life, and where that end-of-life is going to take place.
Are new product design approaches and solutions in waste management part of the answer?
Thompson: We shouldn’t be holding out for technological miracles. It is unreasonable to expect packaging to be tough, long-lasting and effective at protecting its contents, then suddenly to disappear when you dispose of it in the environment. If you take compostable materials, for example, they have clear benefits, but only if you have the right application, and access to a waste stream that can accommodate them. If such materials just get mixed with the residual waste steam and end up in landfill, those benefits are lost. We need to consider end-of-life from the outset, when we start to design a product. Yet when I speak to product designers, they tell me time and again that end-of-life considerations are not part of their brief.
What other measures would you like to see implemented?
Thompson: I don’t think plastic pollution is a problem that can be fixed with a single explosion of action, and I do worry that now the public has a strong appetite for change, a kneejerk reaction by policymakers or by industry could lead to uninformed decisions that have unintended consequences. There are measures that I think would certainly help, for example putting incentives in place to encourage manufacturers to incorporate a certain amount of recycled content into their products. But this is a complex problem that needs an interdisciplinary approach. We need to consider the impact of changes in the round, and that requires us to bring together materials sciences, environmental sciences and behavioral sciences to evaluate the evidence and set the best direction for change.
Do emerging economies need to take a different approach to plastic waste?
Thompson: Several countries in the Far East appear high up in the table of places that produce the most plastic pollution, but actually their per capita consumption of plastic is relatively low. The problem is that they have poor waste-management infrastructure. There are some cases where we are exporting products to developing countries knowing that those communities have no way of dealing with the resulting waste. We have a responsibility to think about how we can help with that. But, ultimately, everybody needs to move towards using plastics in a more circular way. The solutions different regions adopt will not all be the same. The challenge today is to help developing nations get on to that trajectory more quickly than we have done in Europe or North America.
Are you optimistic that we can solve this problem?
Thompson: The vast majority of the benefits that plastics provide could be achieved in a more circular way, without the generation of long-lasting waste, and certainly without the emission of litter to the environment. At the moment there is immense interest and passion about this topic from the public, from policy-makers and from industry. In 30 years working in this area, I’ve never seen all those interests so aligned before. For businesses, I believe there is a market opportunity in starting to use plastics responsibly, and a market disadvantage from continuing with business as usual.
Responsible handling is key
Garbage-strewn beaches and plastic waste in the world’s seas have become a symbol of environmental pollution and the throwaway society. There is agreement that urgent action is needed. However, we will not overcome this challenge by banning individual materials or specific applications. What we need are functioning waste-disposal systems and responsible, sustainable handling of waste.
BASF says clearly that there is no place for plastic waste in the environment. For this reason, we support social and political initiatives to address the challenges of plastic waste. However, bans or levies on the use of specific plastic products are not an effective way of stopping the inappropriate handling of waste or improving the infrastructure for its disposal.
Waste pollution is a global problem, but overcoming it requires tailored regional solutions”
Plastics are valuable materials offering countless benefits: They help increase energy efficiency, save resources and are easy to process. Many solutions in the health care sector are entirely dependent on modern plastics. Their price-performance ratio is nearly unbeatable, and they are also indispensable for all designers of modern products. For many applications, there are no equivalent substitutes that possess these advantages. Before a decision is taken to reduce the use of plastics for specific applications, there should always be a comprehensive analysis of the environmental, economic and social impact, taking account of the whole life cycle of the product. It often turns out that the properties of plastic make it the most sensible material, environmentally and economically – for example, in lightweight automotive construction or building insulation. At the end of their productive life, all plastics can be utilized again. They can be turned into new plastics or chemical raw materials and also be used as sources of energy.
The inappropriate handling of waste and the littering of the environment have nothing to do with a particular material. The first step in combating environmental pollution by waste is to ensure that this waste is collected as completely as possible and appropriately recycled. This requires coordinated action by many participants and includes, for example, the development of suitable waste-management systems and landfill bans for plastics and other recyclable waste, the provision of comprehensive consumer information and the consistent enforcement of anti-littering laws. Waste pollution is a global problem, but overcoming it requires tailored regional solutions.
As a member of the plastics supply chain, BASF provides important answers here. We offer a range of high-performance solutions designed to reduce the environmental impact of plastics, be it in their design, their field of utilization or their potential for recycling at the end of their productive life. We are an active participant in Operation Clean Sweep®. This initiative by the plastics industry aims to prevent unprocessed plastic pellet material ending up in the environment during transportation, for example. BASF also participates alongside other stakeholders in numerous projects and initiatives across value chains to develop better waste-management processes or contribute to raising consumer awareness on the issue of littering. BASF is also driving forward the chemical recycling of plastic waste that has not traditionally been recyclable, so that it can be used as a raw material in chemical production and thus be utilized again in new, high-quality products.