How we can stop plastic from destroying the Earth

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Our plastic waste problem is becoming an increasing enviromental danger and needs a solution (Screenshot via YouTube)

It's vital to the benefit of our planet to find a way to eliminate the growing amount of discarded plastic waste, writes Ella Persse.

PLASTIC, as it was once known, was a pretty useful thing that was nothing more than convenient to use. In the last few years, depending on which media outlets you subscribe to, you might have seen some heart-wrenching images of rivers filled with plastic, or even the giant trash island floating around the ocean.

This has generated an outrage, where people have decided that plastic is the criminal at fault. This is, in fact, not correct. Plastic is no more than a simple material, like steel or glass, it is the cultural attitude toward plastic that is the problem. We see plastic as having such a low value that we have no problem tossing it away, without any regard to where it might end up next.

Situated in the Tokushima Prefecture of one of the globe’s biggest consumers, Japan, a tiny town called Kamikatsu has found international fame for its ambitious (but impressive) zero-waste program, where residents are required to sort their disposables into 45 recyclable categories. Back in the early 2000s, they would just incinerate everything, which ended up causing damaging levels of environmental pollution, but they found that recycling actually cost less than incineration.

This is not seen to be a feasible solution to the recycling and landfill problem in Australia, even South Australia’s ten cent refund scheme for cans was enough of an adjustment and some states only banned free plastic bags in supermarkets in the last few years.

Then there is, of course, the enormous (and growing) issue of China no longer receiving Australia’s “recycling” waste. As the problem can no longer be hand-balled to Australia’s largest trade partner and most Australians would be opposed to sorting recycling into three compartments, let alone 45, a combination of solutions is required.

While the best possible option to reduce the footprint of a product is to not use it at all, using non-virgin products is a far gentler than new material.

Stanford University stated:

‘One ton of recycled plastic saves 5,774 Kwh of energy, 16.3 barrels of oil, 98 million BTUs of energy and 30 cubic yards of landfill space.’

Recycled glass does not quite have the same levels saved, saving only 0.12 barrels of oil and 7.5 pounds of air pollutants per tonne, but still around 30% of glass produced comes from recycled glass.

In South Australia, a request for federal funding toward a new recycling plant for the southern suburbs has been lodged but is yet to be successful. It would be something similar to Melbourne’s new $20 million recycling plant built in Somerton, which is capable of keeping 70,000 tonnes of material out of landfill and converted back into valuable material. It is capable of recycling 10% of all plastic waste, which does not come very close to Kamikatsu’s rate of (almost) 100%.

Around 8% of the world’s oil supply is used to make plastic but bioplastics are beginning to take shape in replacing everyday plastic products. New plastic alternatives are currently circulating in the market or are being developed and are almost ready for the market.

BioBag is an Australian company that makes plastic bag alternatives that are 100% compostable, the only thing holding them back from being in every supermarket in the world is the fact that they cost more than a standard plastic bag. Bioplastics may sound like the obvious alternative, but if they are not composted correctly (sent to landfill) then they will still emit toxic gases just like anything that decomposes, including fruits and vegetables.

Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age from 2014 studied data from the very first Earth Day, the 1970 environmental movement before Extinction Rebellion, to see just how well the world was moving away from excessive material use. The study showed that there was promise ‘to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation’, which contests against Kuznets's famous environmental curve.

Somewhere in the supply chain, someone needs to put in the time and effort to consider the end result of a product, or even a material, so that everyone else does not have to. With a little bit of thinking outside of the box, this can actually be quite simple. The use of modern economics, including the Raworth Doughnut, is an effective way to make sure all bases are covered.

Businesses should aim for not just circularity but for maximum sustainability. It is very easy to write about how businesses should be more environmentally friendly and to point fingers, but the demand for sustainable businesses from consumers is at an all-time high — just check out Zero Co’s Kickstarter page, which has not even reached completion and has already doubled its required funding.

It can also be said that for companies, avoiding an eco-backlash is much more cost effective than having their products boycotted, or paying for reparative PR. Hopefully, this fear drives enough investment into eco-innovation to push companies into building more sustainable versions of their products.

Raworth’s Doughnut amends the economic thinking of the “rational economic man”, where the simple business model of “make product, sell product, repeat” is no longer able to be the sole measure of business success. The product needs to be sustainable and fit within the regions of our Earth’s production capacity, while also still effectively doing what the product needs to do. This requires extra effort and, sadly, it is still possible to make a lot of money without doing this. Soon, however, this will unlikely be the case.

It can be argued that the giant waste problem needs to be tackled from the top, but no one is actually sure which is the best way to do it, let alone willing to fork out the costs required. Both the private and public sector need to find enough harmony (and enough investment) to minimise the plastic problem, as solutions can be found just from paying attention to the market.

Ella Persse is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Adelaide undertaking a Bachelor of Economics.

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