World’s Plastic Binge

Sandra Laville and Matthew Taylor reported in the Guardian on June 28 that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20 percent by 2021, creating an environmental crisis. More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300 billion a decade ago.

Most plastic bottles used for soft drinks and water are made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), which is highly recyclable, but efforts to collect and recycle the bottles to keep them from polluting the oceans are failing to keep up with usage. Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7 percent of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.

Between 5 million and 13 million tons of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University in the UK reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.

There has been growing concern about the impact of plastics pollution in oceans around the world. In May of this year, scientists found nearly 18 tons of plastic on one of the world’s most remote islands, an uninhabited coral atoll in the South Pacific. Another study of remote Arctic beaches found they were also heavily polluted with plastic, despite small local populations.

The majority of plastic bottles used across the globe are for drinking water, according to Rosemary Downey, head of packaging at Euromonitor and one of the world’s experts in plastic bottle production. “This increase is being driven by increased urbanization,” said Downey. “There is a desire for healthy living and there are ongoing concerns about groundwater contamination and the quality of tap water, which all contribute to the increase in bottle water use,” she said. China, India and Indonesia are witnessing strong growth.

Plastic bottles are a big part of the huge surge in usage of a material first popularized in the 1940s. Most of the plastic produced since then still exists; the petrochemical-based compound takes hundreds of years to decompose. Major drink brands produce the greatest numbers of plastic bottles. Coca-Cola produces more than 100 billion throwaway plastic bottles every year according to an analysis carried out by Greenpeace after the company refused to publicly disclose its global plastic usage.

The top six drinks companies in the world use a combined average of just 6.6 percent of recycled Pet in their products, according to Greenpeace. A third have no targets to increase their use of recycled plastic and none are aiming to use 100 percent across their global production.

Plastic drinking bottles could be made out of 100 percent recycled plastic, known as RPet and campaigners are pressing big drinks companies to radically increase the amount of recycled plastic in their bottles. But brands are hostile to using RPet for cosmetic reasons because they want their products in shiny, clear plastic, according to Steve Morgan, of Recoup in the UK. In evidence to a UK House of Commons committee, the British Plastics Federation (BPF), a plastics trade body, admitted that making bottles out of 100 percent recycled plastic used 75 percent less energy than creating virgin plastic bottles. But the BPF said that brands should not be forced to increase the recycled content of bottles.

The industry is resisting any taxes or charges to reduce demand for single-use plastic bottles – like the 5p charge on plastic bags in the UK that is credited with reducing plastic bag use by 80 percent. Coca Cola said it was still considering requests from Greenpeace to publish its global plastics usage. A spokeswoman said: “We continue to increase the use of RPet in markets where it is feasible and approved for regulatory food-grade use – 44 countries of the more than 200 we operate in. If we are to increase the amount of recycled plastic in our bottles even further then a new approach is needed to create a circular economy for plastic bottles,” she said.

This article first appeared in the July 19, 2017 issue of the Rossmoor News, Judith Schumacher-Jennings, author.

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