In 1985, a massive hole in the ozone layer larger than the United States and Mexico combined was detected above Antarctica. Scientists had been raising alarms about the dangers of the chemicals responsible for the hole since the late 70s, but chemical industry lobbyists had been successful in calling for more research and analysis before action should be taken. While the discovery was not enough to persuade industry to stop opposing action, it was enough of a wakeup call that the international community adopted the Montreal Protocol just two years later, phasing out production of chlorofluorocarbons.
Now hailed as one of the best examples of international cooperation in modern history, today the US government estimates that the Montreal Protocol will prevent hundreds of millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts and avert a 25 percent heat increase in our climate. Fortunately for all of us alive today, not to mention our descendants, governments acted quickly and decisively despite dire predictions from industry about unintended economic and environmental consequences.
We are at a similar crossroads today. While there is still much to learn regarding the impacts of the proliferation of plastic over the past 65 years, the science is now undeniably clear that the world must act immediately to reduce plastic production. More than 1,200 species have already been impacted by plastic pollution. Given their notable decline, seabirds, turtles, and whales have assumed the unfortunate role of flagship species in the campaign to end ocean plastics. Corals prefer to eat plastic than food, resulting in elevated disease and mortality at a time when corals are already on the brink of extinction. Contact with plastic impairs the growth and oxygen production of photosynthetic bacteria, which produce much of the oxygen in our oceans—and in our atmosphere. Scientists have begun questioning whether microplastics might also be responsible for the alarming decline of lanternfish populations, the most abundant species of fish on earth.
These are just a few glimpses into the awakening spreading across nearly all disciplines of marine biology. Most of what we know so far has come from scientists who did not set out to study plastic, but found they could not ignore the plastic they were seeing in the course of their research. It has only been in the past few years that scientists are designing studies specifically aimed at understanding the impact of plastic on marine life, the results of which are now emerging. Each week, publications reveal entirely new aspects of the damage this material is inflicting on our oceans.
A 2019 study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin estimates the economic cost of marine plastic pollution at up to $2.5 trillion per year.
At first glance, you might think that this time, industry is aligned and ready to take action. New collaborations, visionary statements, and feel-good ads assure us that the biggest producers and sellers of plastic packaging are committed to keeping plastic out of the ocean. Unfortunately, so far this PR blitz has largely been a smokescreen aimed at convincing investors and customers that everything is going to be okay. Coke, for example, has spent millions on advertising aimed at shifting responsibility to consumers while quietly acknowledging their intention to continue to produce billions of plastic bottles each year. The Plastic Industry Association is exploiting the COVID emergency to attack reusable bags, even as independent studies report the virus lasts longer on plastic than other materials. Banners outside the UN headquarters in New York say “no more single-use plastic” while inside, the US delegation works to derail any effort to talk about source reduction. Unless we dramatically reduce plastic production, especially of single-use plastic, the coming tide of plastic pollution will drive species extinctions, degrade ecosystems, impact human health, and harm our economy.
The Plastic Industry Association is exploiting the COVID emergency to attack reusable bags, even as independent studies report the virus lasts longer on plastic than other materials.
As disastrous as plastic is for the ocean, the impacts do not stop there. We now know that plastic is in the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. Chemicals commonly used in plastic packaging include known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. No one wants to see whales wash up on our beaches with stomachs full of plastic bags, but plastic is as much about human health as it is about the ocean. We know more than enough to justify a precautionary approach for purely selfish reasons.
But instead of embracing the science and reducing our reliance on throwaway plastic, most of the companies with the largest plastic footprints are pretending we can recycle our way out of this problem. There is no excuse for being unaware that most plastic is not worth recycling from an economic or energy standpoint. A new assessment of plastic recycling in America makes clear that bottles and jugs are the only types of plastic that are widely recycled. No other types of plastic packaging meet minimum federal standards to be claimed recyclable. Most types of plastic waste have no value and no market—in other words, no place in a circular economy.
Unless we dramatically reduce plastic production, especially of single-use plastic, the coming tide of plastic pollution will drive species extinctions, degrade ecosystems, impact human health, and harm our economy.
If we spend enough taxpayer dollars, we could subsidize plastic recycling to increase recycling rates—but if we are going to invest years and billions of dollars, why not focus on real solutions? Instead of continuing to produce trillions of throwaway plastic items each year, knowing we will be stuck with the waste for centuries, the sensible answer is to shift to reusable, refillable, and package-free approaches. Simply replacing one type of single-use packaging with another is insufficient; a business model dependent on selling trillions of items a year that are used once and discarded is in urgent need of rethinking.
Doubling, even tripling plastic recycling rates would still not come close to stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean and our bodies. It might not even slow it. The petrochemical industry is in the midst of a $164 billion build out of new infrastructure, banking on a dramatic increase in plastic production even as they work to convince us all that we are on the same side. Most of the big brands are right there with them, focused more on increasing sales of current products than planning for the future. For companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and PepsiCo, whose waste regularly ranks at the top in audits of garbage collected in beach cleanups around the world, this approach is unconscionable.
One of the more bizarre industry talking points is that plastic is good for the planet. Never mind what Greenpeace or other environmental organizations say, petrochemical companies claim they know best. The idea that because plastic is lighter than, say, glass, does not mean that plastic is not a climate nightmare. Plastic is made from fossil fuels and is a major driver behind the fracking boom. If the material ends up in a landfill or the environment, it releases greenhouse gases as it degrades. If it is incinerated, the climate impacts are even worse.
Retailers and brands are now well aware that concern about plastic has reached the point where it has become a business issue, particularly among younger generations. As public trust in large corporations is in decline, so much innovation in plastic-free—and even package-free—models is emerging from startups all over the world. In most markets there are now scrappy small businesses like Loop and Algramo working to provide real alternatives to a customer base hungry for more sustainable options. Companies that develop ambitious strategies now will be prepared for the changing policy climate and able to stay competitive as their customers increasingly avoid throwaway plastic.
Investors are also taking a closer look at plastic. From Closed Loop Partners to the world’s largest financial institutions, investors are realizing there is money to be made in backing solutions. There is also risk associated with investments in companies that are failing to adapt to our changing world. Investment company RobecoSAM is adding plastic to its Dow Jones Sustainability Index questionnaire, which will soon provide data to help inform investment decisions.
As a marine biologist and a Greenpeace activist, I am not just optimistic but confident that we will rise to this challenge. There will inevitably be companies that stick with plastic until the end, but that end is coming. In the meantime, awareness continues to grow, as does the movement away from throwaway plastic from individuals and businesses of all sizes. Cities, states, countries, even entire global regions are taking action. Meanwhile, the scientific evidence keeps rolling in and washing up, ensuring that this awakening, late that it may be, will be successful. Moving away from throwaway plastic will help us keep fossil fuels in the ground, give endangered species a chance to recover, and protect our water, air, and soil. It will save our recycling system and enable us to recover more of the materials that have a place in the circular economy we are working together to build.
This article is part of the Paradigm Shift publication series on solutions from the leaders of the transition to a circular economy. See the full collection of stories and upcoming webinars with the authors here.