The trouble with Plastic
Plastics are some amazing, versatile products. They are available in all colors, some are soft to touch others are hard depending on what they are used for. Since World War II, when the plastic industry really came of age, it has only gone one way for plastic and plastic - upward and forward.
We use plastic in everyday life from morning to evening. Almost everything we buy is wrapped in, or made of plastic. Cars, phones, kitchen appliances, TVs, PCs, clothes, shoes, creams, soaps, shampoos (both the product and the packaging), diapers, furniture, lamps, there are many plastic products in our lives.
Can we do without it? It's hard to say, because are you willing to compromise on the standards in your life? And what are the alternatives? And if a plastic product lasts a really long time, why we should we the avoid using it?
I have an old Bosch plastic hand mixer. It's my grandmother's and it's from the early sixties - that is, the 1960s. It still works perfectly, while I've worn up three or four coffee grinders in the last two years because the bearings are of plastic.
And that's what's it's all about. Until the 1980s, products were made to could last a long time, decades at least. You don't see that today. Phones typically last 3-4 years, then the software is no longer updated. A TV lasts 5 years. Home appliances 5-7 years, then the bearings are typically gone as they're from plastic (nylon). As a consumer, you are lost from the moment you turn on the appliance or machine for the first time.
"Use and throw away - buy our products, we constantly make new hot appliances, all better than what you've already got"...
But we MUST do something. We see photos of plastic isles floating in the ocean, whales with nothing but plastic in their stomachs, turtles with straws in their noses and fishing nets around the shield, ducks in lakes smothered by plastic rings from a six-pack they got around their necks, plastic mountains in Malaysia and in the Philippines, rivers in Asia and Africa covered with plastic.
That's the plastic we can see, something completelydifferent are microplastics.
An invisible enemy that it's hard to fight. Microplastics derive from many things, plastic in nature and the sea and the mentioned plastic isles have great focus, but in fact clothes, and laundry and drying are huge culprits too. Another large sinner are car tires - believe it or not.
A study a few years ago showed that wear and tear of car tires on the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco was the main source to microplastics in the bay.
That's something we normally don't give much thought, right?
So, what to do? What can I do and what can you do? Should we stop driving and sell the car?
"Hmm, I can't do without the car, but I've phased out the plastic bags for shopping and have a smart shopping tote from fabric instead" you'll probably say. Fine, that's a start.
I myself, have a whole drawer filled with plastic bags for kitchen waste, garden waste, for the freezer, for packed lunches etc. Another drawer contains plastic tubs for food - many tubs (often without lids, they disappear just like the socks do in the washing machine).
I need to clean up the drawers while I learn what the future holds for plastics.
In our family we don't put cotton swabs in the toilet, we don't leave anything in nature that doesn't belong there, and we only use plastic where it can't be replaced by something else.
Here's my personal checklist where I have already made or have planned to make changes:
Exports and imports of plastics
|Top Exporters, Jan-Nov 2018||Top Importers, Jan-Nov 2018|
|United States||961,563 tonnes||Malaysia|
|Germany||733,756 tonnes||Viet Nam|
|United Kingdom||548,256 tonnes||Hong Kong|
One of the main problems is clearly waste management and sorting. What guarantee do we have that even when we sort the waste correctly at home, it will be handled correctly or will the problem just be exported to another country?
As a society, we need to look at the disposal of plastic. Why does plastic end up in lakes, creeks and the sea? Why are there empty coke bottles in the woods and cotton swabs on the beach? Why are giant floating plastic isles formed in the oceans? A lot of our plastic disposed correctly when we're done using it, that's a fact.
Plastic waste is not recycled or burned, but instead sailed round the world and ends up in countries like Malaysia and Vietnam. China used to be a major importer of used plastics, but fear of ending up as the "world's garbage country", an import ban was imposed, so now the Chinese produce new plastics which we then import as new phones, TVs, etc...
As consumers, we can and must make demands towards all manufacturers. Research and development is being carried out like never before in plastic recycling, compostable plastics and alternatives to plastics.
Here are some good sites where you can find more information:
The latter has, funnily enough, several names from the aforementioned Top 10 list as members - is it greenwashing, double standards or are they really trying to really make a difference - read and judge by yourself.
Brand Audit Report 2020
Every year Break Free From Plastic publishes a report on which major brands are the world's biggest plastic polluters.
The report is made from the results volunteers report when collecting as much plastic waste as they can.
By 2020, as many as 14,734 volunteers in 55 countries participated in 575 audits.
These volunteers collected a total of 346,494 pieces of plastic waste, 63% of which had clear fire names. The collectors counted a total of over 5,000 brands in the 2020 audit.
The top 10 Global Plastic Polluters by 2020 are:
Read the full report here - it's worth reading!
You'll find exciting information about the "greenwashing" of plastic management, global collaborations, how much plastic was found in each country and much, much more.
Is Coca Cola the world's biggest plastic polluter?
No, Coca Cola isn't necessarily the world's biggest plastic polluter. Things are often not as simple as they seem.
If we take a closer look, there are several factors to make you the world's biggest plastic polluter - these apply to all 10 brands on the list.
- The products can be purchased in all countries of the world (availability)
- Products can be purchased in many places (availability)
- Everyone knows Coca Cola (it's the world's best known brand) and the other brands too (marketing)
- The products look inviting and are easy to bring along (design)
- Many countries in the world do not have a deposit system for bottles and cans
- The products are carefully priced to make us buy them (pricing)
Where are McDonald's and other fast food companies?
Something that makes me wonder; why are McDonald's, Burger King and all the other fast food restaurants not mentioned in this report?
When you google, there's not much literature on how much plastic packaging you get with a McDonald's meal (or another fast food restaurant). In fact, there is also little about how much ends up as unwanted waste in nature.
Perhaps this is because fast food restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King and all the others are typically located on main roads and motorways, where it is not easy to collect waste, as it is difficult or even prohibited to go by foot there. We know that a lot of the packaging ends up along the roadside, thrown out of a car. McDonald's doesn't make food to eat in the restaurant, after all there's a reason it's called fast food, it's food to eat on the go, typically in the car. In fact, 65% of sales at McDonald's in the US are at the drive thru.
The fact that the fast food industry is not mentioned on the Top 10 list doesn't mean that the problem with their packaging is non-existing and doesn't make them free from responsibility. However, McDonald's has acknowledged that they have a problem and that by 2025, 100% of the packaging must either be produced from certified recyclable or compostable materials, today only about 30% of plastic in their packaging can be recycled.
"Be a part of the solution - not the pollution"
You can buy products from these Top 10 members anywhere in the world (generally speaking) drinks are usually in a fridge, bottles and cans have a to-go size for a bag, pocket or bringing along in the car.
Coca Cola and the other brands spend billions on marketing every year, we see their products everywhere. After all, they make a living from selling their goods...
The responsibility for bottles, cans, candy paper, diapers and other things not ending up in nature is yours - and yours solely. You have bought the product, thus you are responsible that the waste gets in the bin instead of ending up in nature.
The responsibility is with YOU - and only YOU.
Does it make producers free from responsibility?
No, in no way producers can turn from from their responsibility. Neither the manufacturers of plastic packaging nor those who use the packaging for their products.
Plastics are made from oil, a fossil fuel. These years a lot of R&D is done to phase out oil production, and alternatives must be found that are more sustainable.
I expect that in the coming years we will see demands from consumers and authorities that packaging should be either compostable or 80-90% recyclable. I don't see that plastic can ever become 100% recyclable.
Until then, pick up both your own and others' plastic waste in nature - THANK YOU!