Before plastics became nature's enemy, they were meant to be nature's friend.
Created in 1869 as a substitute for the ivory in billiard balls, the first primitive synthetic plastic was hailed as the savior of the elephant and a replacement for wood, metal, stone, bone, tusk, and horn. According to the Science History Institute, plastics were then seen as a way to protect the natural world from "the destructive forces of human need."
Fast-forward a century and a half. The human appetite for plastic is far from satisfied, and a future without it seems implausible. Plastic is both a signifier of modern prosperity - in the form of cars, shoes, product wrapping, shopping bags and other consumer goods made from this versatile material - and a modern blight.
Plastic production has ballooned since the mid-20th century, hitting 311 million metric tonnes (343 tons) in 2014, 20 times the amount produced 50 years earlier, as global population little more than doubled. And while climate change remains the environmental issue most likely to turn apocalyptic — as underlined by the latest report from scientists at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — few issues remind us as starkly that humans are in danger of turning the world into a trash heap as our inability to deal with plastic. It also impacts our food supply chains and livelihoods of coastal communities which are already vulnerable to climate change. Microscopic bits of plastic have found their way into the diets of krill, the crustaceans at the base of the marine food chain around Antarctica.
Since the world is unlikely to stop producing and using it, what can we do to mitigate the damaging pollution it causes? There are basically four ways to deal with plastic at the end of its useful life: recycle it, incinerate it, dispose of it in managed waste systems or simply chuck it away.
Building a New Plastics Economy
We need to both reduce our use of plastic and create innovative ways to use and reuse plastic more efficiently over its entire life cycle. A New Plastics Economy based on these principles would have an economic as well as an environmental impact, worth between £60 million and £90 million ($76 million and $114 million) annually, cutting plastic waste by 75 percent.
To support this essential effort, a new Global Plastic Action Partnership, hosted by the World Economic Forum, and in which World Resources Institute is a partner, is bringing together businesses, international donors, national and local government, community groups and world-class experts to help accelerate circular economy solutions to the problem of plastic waste. The Danish government is joining this partnership and has also set out its National Action Plan on Plastics.
Another new initiative, P4G — Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals2030, co-funded by the governments of Denmark and the Netherlands and hosted at WRI — is already supporting three public-private partnerships seeking to rethink our use of plastics.
One of the partnerships is in Kenya, where only 10 per cent of the 1.3 million kg (2.9 million pounds) of plastic waste produced each week is collected for re-use. In 2017, the Kenyan government announced the world's toughest ban on plastic bags, a move now being considered by neighboring African countries. Developed by the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, this partnership seeks to expand plastic collection, label and trace bottles and draw in manufacturers to find new uses for recycled plastic materials.
Curbing Waste by Cutting Plastic Packaging
An app-based food delivery service in Asia and Eastern Europe, foodpanda, is capitalizing on this new business model while keeping in mind the risk of reliance on single-use plastic packaging. This subsidiary of German-based Delivery Hero is working in partnership with Forum for the Future, a sustainability NGO, to remove plastic packaging from its delivery ecosystem throughout Asia. The project could have a powerful impact on waste reduction and inspire other industries to do the same.
In China, the China Environmental Protection Foundation is leading a partnership in collaboration with Chinese municipalities and e-commerce giant Alibaba to reduce unnecessary packaging in products delivered to customers' doorsteps and support recycling and reuse of plastic and package materials. More than 16 billion e-commerce packages a year are delivered to Chinese consumers in plastic bags.
Innovative solutions like these require companies to come together with government and other organizations, reimagining the role that plastics play in their operations. They can draw on the expertise of NGOs and others, participating in a New Plastics Economy that can boost bottom lines. For example, the global plastic recycling market is projected to grow at 6.5 percent annually from 2017 to 2023, reaching a market size of almost £41billion (452 billion) by 2023, with a significant boost for jobs.
For much of the 20th century, plastic did seem like the future. But now, well into the 21st, we can accept that plastic is neither friend nor foe, but frenemy: a fact of modern life. Like other materials used in products, we must minimize waste and maximize re-use. Some of the most imaginative answers to the question of what to do about plastics are coming from the countries that suffer most from plastic pollution as they move toward prosperity. It makes sense for the world's most imaginative companies to join them as we all go forward.