Oceans of plastic


You may want to read How we filled the oceans with plastic in just over 60 years, for a better understanding of the present blog.

The standard for the rational management of plastics (and other materials) through their life cycle is the concept of “waste hierarchy”. Loosely implemented by western countries over the past forty years, it has led to more or less sustainable outcomes in Europe and the United States.

Lansink Ladder (1979)

B, C and D are waste recovery operations. According to the European Court of Justice, the “principal objective [of waste recovery] is that the waste serve a useful purpose in replacing other materials which would have had to be used for that purpose, thereby conserving natural resources” (Abfall Service AG, C-6/00, 2002, known as the “ASA” case). This is also the definition of the 2008 Waste Framework directive (see below).

The waste hierarchy concept was first formulated in Europe by the 1975 waste framework directive (75/442/EEC), which encouraged the “reduction of quantities of certain wastes, the treatment of waste for its recycling and re-use, the recovery of raw materials and/or the production of energy from certain waste”. Refined by The Netherlands in 1979, the waste hierarchy became known as the Lansink Ladder, which ranked waste management options from the most to the least desirable for the environment.

Today, the sustainable logic that inspired the waste hierarchy and Lansink Ladder makes sense from an environmental and resource-efficiency perspective, but at the time few developed countries adopted it as it is. As a result, two approaches developed from the start:

  • A preventive system that maximizes waste avoidance and recovery and minimizes disposal, in The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
  • A corrective system that relies on safe waste disposal without making waste avoidance and recovery a priority, in the United Kingdom (UK), Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Eastern European countries, and the United States (US).

This heterogeneity remained strong until the 1990’s and persists today, even at regional levels where legislative harmonization exists like in the European Union (EU).

When the EU (then the EC) began addressing the issue of plastic waste, both approaches already existed in Europe. States with corrective systems did not welcome change, so the EC had to compromise. This is why the first packaging waste directive of 1994 set low targets, especially for plastics, and a far-off deadline: by 2008, 60% of all packaging waste had to be recovered or incinerated and 55% recycled, including 22.5% of plastic packaging (against 60% for glass, paper and cardboard, and 50% for metals).

Subsequent texts addressed plastics as part of the global waste stream and never revised the 1994 target.

For example, the 1999 Landfill directive (99/31/EC) allowed landfilling for municipal waste (i.e. post-consumer waste) without mentioning the word “plastic” once. The 2008 waste framework directive (2008/98/EC) introduced a general 50% re-use and recycling target for household waste with no plastic-specific target. This law introduced separate waste collection by material type―plastics, paper, glass, and metal. The importance of waste prevention for all waste streams, including plastic waste, was often reiterated. For example, the 1997 Resolution on a Community strategy for waste management stressed that “waste prevention should be first priority for all rational waste policy”.

These various texts have failed to harmonize state policies and plastic waste management performances are lagging as a result.

Plastic packaging waste management in Europe

Plastic packaging waste management in Europe

Over 45 million tons of plastics are used in Europe each year—nearly half is used just for packaging. Post-consumer plastic waste is the primary waste source and represents about 25 million annual tons (EU, Norway and Switzerland together). This means more than 50% of the plastics we use end up in the trash, and presently, about half of that trash is landfilled. Indeed, only seven EU countries, together with Norway and Switzerland, achieve recycling and recovery rates above 90% and passed a landfill ban for plastics. In contrast, the rest of Europe generally lies well below 60% for that matter (see graph).

EU countries, especially those with the best waste management policies, also export a significant part of their waste for treatment, mainly to China. Such exports increased by 250% between 2000 and 2008. In 2010 alone 7.4 million tons of discarded plastic were shipped from Europe to China and Hong Kong. Germany and the UK count among the top five global exporters.

Now that plastic waste is increasingly valued as a resource worldwide, the EU sees poor waste management as a waste of economic potential and is trying to speed up harmonization. The Commission declared last year that “waste management performances [in Europe] need to be redressed as a matter of urgency” to maximize resource efficiency by turning more waste into energy, and thereby create “a circular economy in support of sustainable growth”. A new directive was proposed to that effect―not yet adopted―which would finally rise recycling and re-use targets to 60% for plastic packaging (out of a 70% target for all packaging waste) and ban landfilling for recyclable plastics by 2025.

In the United States, concerns about the environmental impact of waste, originally on national water resources, also arose in the 1970’s. However, the approach remained essentially corrective until the 1990’s with safe waste disposal as the privileged tool under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

At the time, this federal law, which regulates the disposal of solid and hazardous waste, did not make waste prevention a priority. States were individually responsible to develop environmentally sound disposal methods to manage their municipal solid waste (MSW) under the guidance (but not the authority) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—MSW comprises post-consumer plastic waste.

This system still exists today, but priorities have been reorganized since the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 (known as the “P2 law”), which marked a clear shift towards waste prevention at the source. This law adopted the waste hierarchy and stressed that “Source reduction is fundamentally different and more desirable than waste management and pollution control”. The EPA was commissioned to “address the historical lack of attention to source reduction”, develop and implement a strategy to promote it and track its progress.

However, the responsibility to meet the P2 law objectives ultimately lies on each individual state and local governments.

Since the P2 law was adopted, Americans have more than doubled the amount of MSW they recycle. However, given the weak recycling performance of the early 1990’s—about 16% of the total MSW—today only 34% of the 254 million annual tons of MSW generated are recycled (2013 data, see below graph). The share of plastic waste is 32 million annual tons, of which 9% is recycled or composted (2013 data); the rest is incinerated or landfilled.

Solid waste recycling in the USA 1960-2013

Source: EPA

The US continue to generate more solid waste per capita per year than any other country―China and Brazil are quickly catching up. However, this amount has been relatively stable from the 1990’s and even slightly diminished since the 2000’s. If this trend persists and concurrently the amount of waste recovered continues to increase, less plastic waste would end up on landfills and threaten to pollute the environment.

Today, landfilling remains an important waste management tool for post-consumer waste. The best landfill plants can capture the methane produced by anaerobic waste degradation and reuse it for energy. The US also count among the top five global exporters of waste.

Despite these insufficiencies of modern waste management systems, the top contributors to marine plastic pollution are found outside of the Western world. The map below ranks contributors by the amount of mismanaged plastic waste they generated in 2010.

The astounding amount of mismanaged plastic waste worldwide proves the urgency of shifting away from a convenience, throwaway culture. Global plastic production must be reduced and products made more durable and reusable, which implies systemic changes and lifestyles adjustments.

Part 1 I Part 2 I Part 3 I Part 4 (coming soon)


One thought on “Oceans of plastic

  1. Extremely interesting article! The problem with plastic waste is explained in extremely further details and the people can get easy to the core of this problem. It’s great that there is an established plan to manage the problem with plastic waste!

    Liked by 1 person

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