Living in the Plastic Age

By Adrian Pang

Located at 11,034 meters below the ocean surface in the Pacific Ocean, the Mariana Trench is the deepest part of the world. The third and most recent dive on May 13, 2019 by a businessman-turned-explorer Victor Vescovo, broke the previous record by 11 meter to become the deepest human dive in history (Morelle, 2019). These expeditions were crucial for humans to understand the oceans a little more – since it is widely believed that we have only explored 5 percent of our oceans. Unsurprisingly, there were amazing discoveries of new wildlife and microbes in the abyss. But when BBC reported on Vescovo’s dive, the headline simply read: “Mariana Trench: Deepest-ever sub finds plastic bag”. Several other news outlets like the Independent and CNN reported in similar fashion (Baynes, 2019; Street, 2019). A milestone in human exploration was overwhelmed by a sombre undertone invoked by the discovery of a plastic bag and candy wrappers at such depth (Wilkin, 2019).Worst, this was not the deepest known piece of plastic. The record goes to a flimsy plastic shopping bag found at based on the Deep-Sea Debris database – a collection of dive photos and videos recently made public (Gibbens, 2019).

Humans have produced 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics since its industrial-scale production thrived in the 1950s (Siegel, 2018). However, with only nine percent of these plastics recycled, 79 percent went into dumpsites and the wider environment (ibid). Consequently, this plastic trash was leaked into waterways and into the oceans. As of 2010, it is estimated that 4 to 13 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is dumped into the oceans annually (Gibbens, 2019; Babayemi, et al., 2018; Xanthos & Walker, 2017; Groden, 2015). And in less than a century, plastic accounts for 60 to 80 percent of marine litter (Raubenheimer & McIlgorm, 2018). As a result, plastic trash has been found in even the remotest coastal areas in the world. Uninhabited remote islands such as Henderson Island in the South Pacific, is estimated to have more than 38 million pieces of plastic washed ashore – with 13,000 pieces coming in every day, making the coral atoll one of the most densely polluted places on Earth (Dauvergne, 2018a). Elsewhere, there are currently five plastic gyres circling in the world’s oceans.  (Siegel, 2018). At the current pace of consumption, ocean plastics could treble in a decade and it is estimated that plastics will outweigh fish by 2050 (Dauvergne, 2018a; Harrabin, 2018).

Much of this litter is hazardous to wildlife in the marine ecosystem where 700 marine species have been found to interact with marine debris (Vince & Hardesty, 2017). Macro plastics in the forms of ghost nets, plastic bags, plastic straws, cigarette butts and etc. have caused entanglement, starvation, suffocation, laceration, infection, indigestion, reduced reproductive success and mortality (Xanthos & Walker, 2017; Lytle, 2017). Midway Atoll, also a small group of islands in the South Pacific, is labelled as an “albatross graveyard” for the mass deaths of Laysan Albatrosses from plastic ingestion. 1.5 million of these birds have plastic traces in their digestive systems (Walsh, et al., 2016). Moreover, it is found that most microplastics ingested by marine lifeforms have transferred up the food chain. Statistically, an average European seafood eater would ingest an average of 11,000 pieces of microplastics annually. . Unfortunately, humans do not understand fully the health effects of ingesting microplastics (WHO, 2019).

Even so, responses to this massive problem remain lacklustre. This shortcoming is worsened by the sudden waste crisis instigated by China’s waste import ban. This turning point showed the fragility of a global dependence on a single importer as the waste management order (Brooks, et al., 2018). The constant push for market mechanisms to address environmental issues have complicated governance and bottlenecking any substantial efforts to curb the problem.

One Man’s Trash is Another’s Treasure?

Trading recyclable waste was viewed as a sustainable solution of waste management. In fact, this method was noted by the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel Convention) (elaborated below). Wastes of one country such as metal scraps, papers and plastics can be reused, recycled or regenerated as second hand, functional resources or secondary raw materials for another (Siegel, 2018). Unsurprisingly, this solution stimulated a new market –recycling trade market. The world traded more than 191 million tons of waste in 2007, a staggering 67 percent increase over a five years period from 2002 (Kellenberg, 2012). The market currently possesses a net worth of USD 200 billion according to the Bureau of International Recycling (Blood, et al., 2018). However, recent studies have found recycling appears more as a smokescreen for Northern countries to dump their waste in other countries. In many cases, more stringent waste regulations at home have driven Northern countries to export their wastes to countries with cheaper disposal costs, lax environmental laws and inadequate handling capabilities (D’Amato, et al., 2018; Liu, et al., 2018). Kellenberg (2012) found a positive correlation between trading countries, where for every one percent that a home country’s environmental regulations deteriorate in relation to a foreign bilateral trading partner, the home country experiences a 0.32 percent increase in waste imports from the trading counterpart.

Plastic wastes are also seen as recyclable or reusable to become second-round raw materials for many developing countries. Global import and export of plastic waste grew 723 and 817 percent from 1993 to 2016 respectively and trading became even more lucrative in this past decade, raking in USD$5 billion annually (Earley, 2013; Brooks, et al., 2018). Coinciding with the country’s rapid industrialization, China also saw economic incentives in recycling plastics. The country collectively with Hong Kong, imported over 70% of these wastes (Earley, 2013). For a while, the world had a rubbish bin that is China. 43 out of 123 plastic exporting countries sent their plastic wastes to China (Brooks, et al., 2018). However, gradual economic development and rampant exploitations of China’s lax environmental regulations degraded the country’s natural environment. This prompted the central government to declare “Operation Green Fence” in 2013 to curb illegal imports of dirty, hazardous and useless wastes (including plastics) – often mislabelled as recyclables, through intense custom monitoring and inspections, while also reducing illegal foreign smuggling and trading of the materials (Sun, 2019; Brooks, et al., 2018). A permanent policy that banned almost all plastic waste imports – the National Sword was implemented in 2017.

China’s sudden rejection of plastic wastes had Northern countries scrambling to look for new buyers of their rapidly towering waste at home (Margolis, 2018). They started eyeing other Asian (predominantly Southeast and South Asian) countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka to be their next dumpsites (Tan, et al., 2018; Siegel, 2018). In Southeast Asia, the massive influx of plastic wastes coincided with the region’s economic boom, worsening the region’s existing plastic waste crises. This is because waste infrastructures, incineration facilities and landfill sites are inadequate to handle 80 percent of plastic waste that is not commercially viable for recycling (Dauvergne, 2018b). Consequently, plastic wastes often leaked into water systems and into the oceans. Together with China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines account for 60 percent of plastic waste in the oceans (Chow, 2015). Another Southeast Asian country – Malaysia is also among the top 10 polluters globally.

However, the plastic problem is merely a national issue for these countries. Rather it is a systemic problem that transcends boundaries, geographies and jurisdictions. Actors from the local level to international level are intricately connected through vast and complicated networks shaped by power relations and knowledge that revolved around fundamental discourses of today in economics, ecology and sustainability. Plastic waste trading is perhaps not a viable solution in the long-term. Therefore, it is imperative to foster positive dynamics of and between current international relations, national governances, private corporations and local grassroot movements, and attempts to initiate more meaningful conversation on the efforts to deal with this compounding environmental issue.

The Current Discourse around Plastic Waste Management

At present, there are increasing policies, strategies, good intentions and actions to address the issue of ocean plastic pollution. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) is the flagship intergovernmental environmental organization that has been a leading voice in international efforts to deal with this issue. International guidelines and policies like the Basel Convention governs international movements of hazardous waste (Alter, 1997; Lepawsky, 2015). Its creation was necessitated after a series of international hazardous waste trade controversies that resulted from (and highlighted) inequitable waste trade relationships between developed and developing countries where hazardous waste trades have caused untold harms to receiving countries – usually developing countries’ environment and public health. (Choksi, 2001). Fortunately, the introduction of BC in 1987 was able to curb egregious dumping of hazardous waste in poor developing countries (Alter, 1997). Plastic waste trade was subsequently included in the provisions of the Basel Convention and has leapfrogged conventional hazardous waste trade to become one of, if not the most pressing issue in recent years.

On national fronts, countries worldwide have taken various actions to address this mounting environmental issue within their borders. Costa Rica, Kenya along with many African countries Bangladesh, and China have taken the significant steps to ban single use, disposable plastic bags. Whereas many other countries have implemented monetary or incentive driven policies or regulations to address the issue. The most notable example is the plastic bag levy that is increasingly popular in many countries (Rivers et al. 2016; Jakovcevic et al. 2014; Poortinga et al. 2013; Ohtomo and Ohnuma 2014; Martinho et al. 2017; Thomas et al. 2016). In Singapore, the National Environmental Agency is a leading figure in guiding the country towards using less plastics through its consistent and comprehensive studies on the matter.

Plastic waste reduction constitutes a significant part of the country’s Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015. Singapore aspires to be a Zero-Waste Nation and as such, is focusing on “reducing consumption of materials as well as to reuse and recycle materials to give them a second lease of life” (Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, et al., 2015). The country has also set targets for the national domestic and non-domestic recycling rates to increase 11% and 4% respectively by 2030. The Singapore Environmental Council (SEC) has conducted a study on the country’s plastic waste ecosystem and concluded with several recommendations to overhaul the country’s plastic waste management capacity (Singapore Environmental Council, 2018).

Corporations and Organisations as Leaders

Several recommendations, namely innovation to reduce plastic packaging waste, building a financial market for recycled plastic through innovation, replace single-use plastic bags / rolls with alternatives and legislation and policy measures are hugely relevant for corporations and organisations to adopt and pursue. Cue the circular economy. A circular economy is an economic system that aims to gradually decouple economic activity of non-renewable, finite resources by promoting the reuse, recycling or regeneration of used materials to give them new leases of life. In so doing, the potential to reduce as well as avoid unnecessary resource extractions and wastage from the planet is immense. As of 2012, plastic production accounted for about 4% of global oil production which is possibly much higher today (Slav, 2019). A reduction to this figure through lower production and consumption of plastic products would still contribute to significant reductions of carbon emissions annually. From a financial perspective, adopting a circular model to plastic consumption can also reduce operational cost through the reduction of raw materials procurement and processing. A major study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2015 concluded that adopting a circular economy generally could enhance Europe’s productivity by 3% by 2030, generating cost savings of €600 billion a year and €1.8 trillion more in other economic benefits (McKinsey & Company, 2017). Therefore, private entities should capitalise on their potentials and capacity to make significant strides in plastic waste consumption and management. The several recommendations by SEC are precisely components that can enable this to happen. From production to consumption, companies should innovate new methods, technology and practices to not only reduce their own plastic consumption but also to be role models in encouraging the public to adopt these essential habits, measures and practices. Moreover, investments in new innovations and technologies to improve plastic waste management will lower further their costs and expenditure in the medium to long term. In a nutshell, corporations and organisations of any sector should actively seek for ways to transform their supply chain and services to adhere to the principles and practices of a plastic circular economy. Internally, entities should also implement guidelines and instil habits and values among employees around the consumption of plastic products to reduce unnecessary plastic waste. They should, through coordinated efforts, aim to be leaders in driving the transition of plastic lifecycle in Singapore from a linear to a circular economy.

Let Us Join in the Fight against Plastic Waste Disaster

These approaches to reduce plastic consumption can have trickle-down effects on the grassroot levels and the public. That leads to you and me, the daily consumers and individuals. We should each play our part to be conscious consumers. Afterall, any plans or strategies would falter if the individuals and public do not subscribe to it. In 2019, Singapore generated 930,000 tonnes of plastic waste (National Environmental Agency, 2019). That is the equivalent of 165kg of plastic waste per person annually or the equivalent of four dead whales like the one that washed up on one of the Philippines’ shores with 40kg of plastic bags in its stomach (Vaughan, 2019). Therefore, it is important to remember that one person CAN make a difference. So, let us do our part, bring a reusable tote bag to the market, avoid double layering the plastic bags and bring your own tumbler and containers when we order takeout while companies and governments continue to make significant progress to prevent the world from sinking further in plastic waste.

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