Stemming the flow of plastic waste

Article by Amanda Doyle

World wakes up to harm caused by throwaway plastics

EUROPE has proposed a law banning or restricting single-use plastics, the UN has released a policy roadmap on how to restrict the use of plastic, and there has been a wave of pledges from people and companies worldwide to phase out the plastic that is causing extreme damage to the environment.

Plastic is undeniably a useful and convenient commodity. However, of the 9bn t of it that has been produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled. Around 12% has been incinerated, and the remaining 79% is either dumped in landfills or in the environment. If humanity continues this trend, there will be 12bn t of plastic in landfills and the environment by 2050.

Most plastics don’t biodegrade, and they can take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose. A significant amount of plastic ends up in the oceans where it creates severe problems for marine wildlife through entanglement, ingestion, pollution through the release of toxic chemicals, or by acting as a raft to transport invasive species.

Of the 9bn t of plastic that has been produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled

This ultimately causes plastic to enter the food chain, and the human health implications of ingesting microplastic is still unknown. Marine litter can create navigation hazards, cause problems for fisheries, impact tourism, and represents a loss of valuable resources. Plastic bags can also block drains and sewerage systems, leading to flooding and disease outbreaks. The total cost of economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem is an estimated US$13bn/y.

The worst offenders

The number of policies regulating single-use plastics has been rapidly increasing in recent years, prompted partially by increased public awareness of the problem due to documentaries such as Sir David Attenborough’s   Blue Planet II.

A new law has been proposed by the European Commission to ban or restrict the use of certain plastic items in EU member states. The European Commission report identifies the ten single-use plastic products most commonly found on Europe’s beaches and surrounding seas. The top ten, along with lost and abandoned fishing gear, constitute around 70% of marine litter in Europe.

If humanity continues this trend, there will be 12bn t of plastic in landfills and the environment by 2050


This article is adapted from an earlier online version.

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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