We have previously written on the state of plastic waste and we felt it was time to revisit the issue and see what has progressed. There is some good and some bad news in the world of single-use plastics at present.
In 2021 the Minderoo Foundation created a report, The Plastic Waste Makers Index (PWMI). The PWMI is a report that reveals the source of the single-use plastics (SUP) crisis. It also assesses the circular plastics economy and estimates how virgin polymer production is expected to grow or decline in the future. They have recently issued their 2023 edition, which does have some alarming findings:
- SUP production increased from 2019 to 2021, an additional 6 million metric tonnes.
- new plastics account for 15 times more than the amount of recycled plastic used in plastic goods.
- greenhouse gas emissions from SUPs in 2021 were equivalent to the total emissions of the United Kingdom.
Sadly the cost of using recycled plastics is likely to be what is behind these figures. Virgin plastics are generally much cheaper to use than recycled plastic. Perhaps legislators need to pose a tax on virgin plastics to bridge this gap and make recycled plastics more attractive.
The SUP production increase is a little surprising given the number of countries introducing a ban on certain SUP's. Many states here in Australia have progressively been banning SUPs such as straws, plates, cutlery, bags etc. Western Australia is still leading the way with a commitment to ban all unnecessary SUP's this year with the only exception being balloons. The Marine Conservation Organisation has a great summary of the state by state timelines, you can find it here. Hopefully our other states will follow suit and commit to more bans.
Elsewhere, in the EU, member states have committed to reduce packaging waste per capita by 15% by 2040. This is to be achieved with tighter controls on packaging and an outright ban on “avoidable packaging”, such as mini-shampoo bottles in hotels which will fortunately will flow through to most countries, especially within the international hotel brands. They have also planned a ban on single-use packaging for small quantities of fruit and vegetables. Hotels, cafes and restaurants will have tight regulations on the use of disposable plates and cutlery for dine in and takeaway. Takeaway coffees would also need come in a reusable cup or one supplied by the customer. Coffee cups are a huge contributor to our waste problem.
In Canada, the Canadian EPA made the decision to name plastics as a toxic material. This is pretty huge and has paved the way for their banning the manufacture, import and sales of 6 categories of SUP products this year.
Realising the destruction of their oceans and environment, which is vital for their economy, several Caribbean Islands have banned SUPs such as bags, containers, cutlery and straws.
The USA has not been quite so progressive, however, the national parks have banned the sale of SUP products. Many states of the US still don't have any commitment to banning SUPs. The main focus in the states that are making commitments to ban seem to be plastic bags, straws and takeaway containers. Less than half are banning plastic bags and around a third are proposing restrictions or bans on single-use items such as straws.
The Scandinavian countries seem to be the most progressive. Norway is the world leader in recycling plastic bottles as a result of its refundable deposit program. 97% of all plastic bottles in Norway are recycled. Of that, 92% is turned back into bottles. Their research shows that some of the plastic bottles have been recycled more than 50 times so far, and now, less than 1% of plastic bottles litter the environment. What has also helped Norway achieve such a high rate of compliance is by taxing the companies that make plastic bottles. The more the companies use recycled plastic, the less they pay in environmental taxes.
In Sweden, not only do they have SUP reduction targets, less than 1% of the country's waste is sent to landfill. Around 47% is recycled and the remaining 52% is burnt in waste plants where it is converted into district heating, electricity, biogas, and bio-fertilizer. Their waste plants use the steam from burning the garbage to generate the power. Approximately four tons of garbage contains energy equivalent to one ton of oil, 1.6 tons of coal, or five tons of wood. Sweden is aiming for 0% landfill. Something every country should be working towards...