Environment

Recycling scams and government inaction will do nothing to stop a projected quadrupling of plastic production by 2050 – but there are ways to stem the tide of waste. By Craig Leeson.

The solution to our plastic addiction

Filmmaker Craig Leeson with waste from single-use plastics in a scene from A Plastic Ocean.
Filmmaker Craig Leeson with waste from single-use plastics in a scene from A Plastic Ocean.
Credit: Supplied

Australia has a reputation as the waste bin of the world. Every year, Australians have sent about three million tonnes of waste to be recycled overseas. In fact, we exported more recyclables than any other country in the OECD. This is a huge burden on our economy and our environment; it also means that there are very few incentives for businesses to invest in recycling technology here at home.

This was highlighted recently by the collapse of soft plastics recycling. REDcycle, a Melbourne-based company, was contracted to collect more than five million plastic items a day from public dropoff points at nearly 2000 supermarkets across the country, mostly Woolworths and Coles. It claimed to deliver them to other companies that used them as ingredients in concrete, asphalt, street furniture, bollards and shopping trolleys. Instead, as an investigation by The Age revealed, REDcycle was transporting the plastic to warehouses for long-term storage.

This isn’t the first recycling scam in Australia and it probably won’t be the last. When China and Malaysia stopped accepting our plastic, some companies contracted to deal with it began exporting it to Indonesia, hidden in bails of paper, until they were caught out and Indonesia sent it back.

There are many reasons plastic recycling is considered unprofitable. On many plastic products is a number between 1 and 7. The 1s and 2s are the PET and HDPE plastics, which can be recycled maybe six to eight times, as long as they aren’t contaminated with other plastics or organic matter. The 3-6 plastics have minimal use and require specialist infrastructure, and the 7s have no value at all. When you consider that globally one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute and five trillion plastic bags are used every year, you get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

At the United Nations Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, the prime minister of Samoa, Fiamē Naomi Mata’afa, told how her island wasn’t just drowning from rising sea levels but also single-use plastics. Island nations contribute less than 1.3 per cent of global plastic waste, she said, and yet packaging, beverage bottles, toys, thongs and other plastic detritus are washed ashore in a daily assault by ocean gyres that have carried them, sometimes for decades, far from where they were purchased. “We are grossly and disproportionately affected by its impacts,” she told the conference.

As an Australian, COP27 was a very different experience from the year before. In Glasgow for COP26, the shame of being Australian was very real. But in Egypt, with the new Albanese Labor government promising to tackle issues such as climate and plastics, we Aussies were proud once again.

And yet, as a filmmaker, I left Egypt troubled, wondering if humanity had the capacity to fix these critical, related problems. We humans are still manufacturing and throwing away more single-use plastics than ever before. This is code red.

Why are we consuming more plastics than ever? The simple answer is convenience, habit and a lack of government regulation. We have been sold the lie that we can keep using plastics as long as we consumers recycle them. But recycling doesn’t work. It never did and it wasn’t designed to. It’s a con. Advertisements in the 1960s promoting recycling were the work of plastics manufacturers who wanted to shift blame for the increase in plastic pollution from themselves to consumers. What better way than to make individuals feel guilty for not recycling. It worked. But without infrastructure allowing communities to recycle, the problem has now become so widespread it’s causing untold human health issues, and plastics now coat the earth like a disease.

It isn’t going to get better any time soon. The oil and gas industry is banking on us using more single-use plastic packaging than ever. Globally, more than $US2 trillion is being invested in building new chemical production plants for plastics in the next 20 years. Big Oil, which is losing market share in the transportation sector, is going after plastic packaging, betting that we won’t be able to give up the habit of single-use convenience. That’s because 12 per cent of oil now goes towards making plastic. From 2020 to 2040, BP expects plastics to represent 95 per cent of the net growth in demand for oil, according to Carbon Tracker.

There is now so much plastic in our environment, a recent study by Portsmouth University scientists found the average Sunday roast can contain as many as 230,000 microplastic particles. Eating a similar meal every day over the course of a year means consuming the equivalent of two plastic bags. Many of the chemicals in plastics are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, often mimicking and sometimes blocking the hormones produced by our bodies. Evidence shows they can cause cognitive issues in kids, and everything from diabetes to cancer in adults. Interestingly, researchers compared roast-meal ingredients that were wrapped in plastic with those that weren’t. The roast made from ingredients wrapped in plastic contained seven times more microplastics than the one without. Moreover, the non-plastic-packaged items cost 37 per cent less.

 

Do we all really want more plastic in our lives? No. A recent Ipsos market survey of 20,000 people from 28 countries found that 75 per cent of respondents say single-use plastics should be banned, with 88 per cent calling for an international treaty to combat plastic pollution.

The solutions are obvious. We can implement them but governments aren’t doing it fast enough or in a co-ordinated way. Single-use plastics must be banned globally. The European Union in 2021 did just that, but it wasn’t first. Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2008 because they were literally killing its financial system. Cattle, the backbone of wealth in the country, were choking on plastic bags. In Australia, all states, except my home state of Tasmania – the City of Hobart is the exception – have since banned plastic bags, polystyrene, plastic straws, drink stirrers and cutlery. In the absence of government leadership, the private sector has stepped in. In 2018 I began working with French bank BNP Paribas to set a corporate example by banning single-use plastics from its 65 global offices by 2020 – a full year before the European Union did. With the help of its 190,000 employees it was achieved on schedule and a full 20 years before other government- and industry-suggested targets at the time. As with the climate issue, we also need systemic change. Citizens have an important role to play using their voice and their vote. This is imperative. Single-use plastics are a design flaw. They compromise human health and the natural environment.

For those plastics already in our oceans and land environments, we need a new, thoughtful, co-ordinated and subsidised approach. It will take immense planning and recognition that manufacturers of plastic products must be made responsible for their products. Governments need to intervene to legislate responsibility and set up quasi-government companies to collect the plastic and process it, funded by taxes and levies on plastic producers so that the post-consumer plastics are given a value, monetised and placed into a circular system. Germany has been doing this successfully since 1991. The plastic that remains can be recycled and turned into long-life plastics such as park benches, car parts and kayaks, and used in a variety of construction applications. In Santiago, Chile, I filmed a recycling company named Comberplast taking everything from ghost nets to nappy tabs and recycling them into new products. The company has a circular rather than linear approach to manufacturing and recycling and has developed its own technology to deal with even the most difficult packaging, such as the multilayered drinks boxes (think Tetra Pak) and those made up of different percentages of polyester and polyamides.

Awareness and education campaigns need to start within school systems. In Santiago, we witnessed children as young as three separating their household plastics and placing them into community recycling bins according to the types of plastic they contained. As consumers, we also need to switch to alternatives to single-use plastics, choosing recyclable or garden-compostable materials such as recycled fibre.

This is something we can all be involved in. Every single person has a part to play. My most recent project, www.cooee.eco, aims to take the guesswork out of choosing to be responsible, and rewards consumers for doing so. It’s a new digital marketplace that aims to encourage greater commerce between manufacturers of sustainable products and resellers, as well as resellers and consumers.

 

Globally, there is hope. A new plastic treaty is attempting to align all 195 countries in efforts to deal with the mess. Organised by the UN in March last year, it’s said to be the most significant treaty since the Paris Agreement on climate. Uruguay hosted the first of five meetings in December in the wake of COP27. Called INC-1, it’s an international negotiating committee to set the framework to formulate a legally binding global instrument with a focus not just on the waste but on the full life cycle of plastics. Unsurprisingly, the petrochemical industry and major fossil fuel companies were out in force – as they are at the climate COPs – to undermine the ambitious treaty that we so desperately need. This new global instrument has the potential to end the ongoing threats to human, animal and environmental health from plastics.

If we don’t do anything about our plastic addiction by 2050 – when our population will swell to 9.8 billion people – plastic production will increase from 8.3 billion tonnes today to 35 billion tonnes in 2050, of which less than 9 per cent is recycled. To put that into a visual context, if you took all the plastic that has been produced and discarded as of today and lay it on the ground, it would cover Argentina, the eighth largest country on the planet, in plastic up to 30 centimetres high. Imagine what that would look like by 2050. Plastic flowing into the ocean is expected to triple by 2040, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ’s “Breaking the Plastic Wave” report. Immediate action through a global treaty could stem the tide by more than 80 per cent.

We must achieve this objective, not just for our planet but for our children, who are already compromised by the toxic effects of this hideous design flaw.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 11, 2023 as "Wrapped in plastic".

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