Three ways to solve plastic pollution

IF YOU THINK humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is hard to shake, it’s nothing compared to the strength of our plastics habit.

In rich countries, per-capita carbon emissions and crude oil consumption have both fallen by about 15% since the turn of the millennium. That might seem slow, but at least it’s progress: When it comes to polymers, our usage has risen by 29% over the same period.

That imbues a certain fatalism into the negotiations due to wrap up in Ottawa on Monday. Representatives there are attempting to hammer out the skeleton of a global treaty on plastics pollution that will join similar United Nations pacts on climate change, ozone-depleting chemicals and biodiversity.

The main target of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions by 2060. That’s what boldness looks like. Even the most progressive of three projections for plastics laid out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecasts waste will roughly double by 2060. The baseline scenario expects it to triple.

There’s an almost universal political and grassroots consensus that polyethylene, polyvinyl and the like — used in everything from packaging, to clothing, consumer appliances, medical instruments and paint — are a pressing issue that must be urgently tackled. The problem is that the sheer complexity and diversity of the industry is crippling ambition.

A simpler way of looking at it is to consider that plastics present the world with three separate major problems: litter, emissions and health. Each has different solutions, ranging from the straightforward, to the dauntingly difficult.

Litter is perhaps the easiest to tackle, as my colleague Adam Minter has written. Nearly two-thirds of the plastic trash flowing into the world’s oceans comes from just eight countries, mostly middle-income nations in Asia. The US, European Union and Japan put together account for just 0.7% of the total, a lower burden than Haiti.

This is essentially an issue of waste management. Fixing that might be easier said than done in developing countries where municipal authorities are overworked and cash-strapped, but there are plenty of examples of cities — from Tacloban and San Fernando in the Philippines, to Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai in India — that have made real progress.

There’s no shortage of laborers in such places seeking work as garbage-pickers. What’s missing is the money to pay and organize them properly. A global plastics treaty needs to mandate funding from rich nations. Developing countries can help themselves, too, by introducing producer-pays policies, under which manufacturers pay a fee for the disposal of their products. These have been highly effective in Europe, where about 40% of plastic packaging is recycled. They’re already being adopted in less wealthy parts of the world, particularly for electronic waste.

Emissions might seem more challenging, but the broader decarbonization of the global economy offers reasons for hope. Despite their high visibility, plastics represent a surprisingly small share of greenhouse gases — about 1.8 billion tons out of 49.8 billion tons in 2019, or about 3.6% of the total. About 90% of that footprint comes from manufacturing them, rather than composting and landfill.

Better waste management is part of the solution here, too. Most of those manufacturing emissions come from burning carbon-rich fuel to slice and dice hydrocarbon molecules into resin polymer pellets, and then burning more of it to heat, extrude, and blow them into finished goods such as car tires, refrigerator shelves, and shopping bags. The world is currently throwing away vast amounts of methane, however, by failing to capture the gas seeping from landfills, sewage, food scraps, and agricultural residues.

India could use such biomethane to meet about 10% of its natural gas demand today and spend less money than it pays for imported LNG, according to the International Energy Agency. By 2040, that share rises to about two-thirds. There’s a long road to reach that target: Globally, such biogas only accounts for about 1.2% of the energy we produce from fossil gas right now.

Several recent studies have argued that process improvements using such biogenic gas could make plastic production almost or entirely carbon-free. That’s not going to happen unless global rules impose costs and mandates on the 800-odd oil refineries where our resin pellets are produced, however.

All this suggests there’s grounds for progress. The situation with health, however, is more demoralizing, and confusing.

Part of the problem is that we just don’t know how much damage plastics are doing. Despite alarming evidence of the way they accumulate in oceanic flotsam, the guts of animals, and even the internal tissues of people and fish, we’re still in the dark about the true scope of the problem, or whether it’s a health problem at all.

Even so, a precautionary principle seems sensible. Microbeads, the tiny polymer particles used in many cosmetics, are banned in many (but not all) countries. That should be extended worldwide.

The health effects of phthalates (a ubiquitous group of additives that make plastics more flexible) and bisphenol A (which makes them tougher) are the subject of ongoing scientific debates. Minimizing usage of each chemical on a global scale would be worthwhile. Beyond that, we should set a long-term global cap on plastics production, and give each country a target share, as we now do with carbon emissions.

For the most part, we worry too much about plastics, and underestimate how useful and beneficial they are. We’re not going to be able to turn the clock back on the fact that modern society is built on complex chemicals.

Nonetheless, we should tackle this issue head-on. More than half of the toxic mercury in our soils, waters, and air today was emitted before 1900. Plastics, similarly, don’t easily flush themselves out of the environment. If we delay too long before acting, we may be left with a legacy that will take generations to solve.

BLOOMBERG OPINION