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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

More Plastic than Fish
distributed 2/5/16 - ©2016

By 2050, the world's oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish.

That's the shocking prediction from a recent report, and -- judging by how often and how widely I've heard it quoted -- it is a figure that has captured our imagination. It is a vivid image of humanity's enormous and devastating impact on the planet.

The statistic by itself -- in just 34 years, plastic trash in the ocean will outweigh all the fish in the sea -- might nudge us toward hopelessness and despair. Fortunately, the new report from the World Economic Forum deals with careful analysis and creative options that point toward solutions.

It is helpful to look at the message of the report, and to take a brief look at a larger message about environmental change.

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A short snip of dialogue in the movie The Graduate spoke on several levels to the reality of 1967 America -- both about emerging technology and superficial culture. Young Benjamin is given one word of career advice: "Plastics." (That line is ranked #42 in the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie quotations.) Mr. McGuire goes on to say, "There's a great future in plastics. Think about it." [See a video clip of that famous scene.]

Mr. McGuire's prediction from 49 years ago was amazingly accurate. The executive summary of the World Economic Forum report, The New Plastics Economy, opens with these words:

Plastics have become the ubiquitous workhorse material of the modern economy -- combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost. Their use has increased twenty-fold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. Today nearly everyone, everywhere, every day comes into contact with plastics -- especially plastic packaging, the focus of this report.

That packaging -- bags, bottles, cups, and such -- generally has a single use, and then becomes trash. Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. And world-wide "a staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems." It is "leakage" into the environment, much of it eventually into oceans.

At least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean each year -- which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute. If no action is taken, this will increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.

This isn't completely new information. A study published in Science a year ago documented the enormous and growing volume of plastic in the oceans, and identified the countries generating the largest amounts of that trash. China leads the list, and many of the other big offenders are in Southeast Asia.

What can be done? Do we need massive new campaigns teaching people to take their own canvas bags to the grocery store? Or new efforts to cut down on littering? I'm glad to say that the WEF report doesn't go in that direction.

Instead, the WEF looks toward "The New Plastics Economy" which will reuse and recycle most plastics, instead of the present system where 86% of packaging materials immediately become trash or pollution. Their vision for a "circular economy" for plastics begins with the development of a Global Plastics Protocol that will reshape the production and processing of plastics. International standards will identify materials that have the best recycling capabilities, make it easier to sort plastics for recycling, and develop new markets for recycled plastic.

The World Economic Form researchers don't see the primary problem as bad management of garbage. Rather, the system needs to change so that used plastic is seen as a valuable resource, and not garbage at all. Creating actual financial value for the stuff that is now seen as worthless trash gives incentives to collect and reprocess those packaging materials.

Yes, better systems to collect garbage are needed, especially in the rapidly developing middle-income countries in Asia. "Ban-the-bag" legislation can have a dramatic impact on the amount of waste. (Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags, after they were found to have choked drainage systems during devastating floods.) And new kinds of plastics are needed which will genuinely be "bio-benign" if they do leak into the oceans. There is hope, too, for making some of those plastics in ways that don't use fossil feedstocks, using agricultural products or captured CO2 instead of oil and gas.

But the most important factor named by the WEF is to make used plastic valuable. If there is a significant economic benefit to capturing those grocery bags and water bottles, then they are far less likely to end up as ocean pollution.

Plastic in the ocean is a real crisis, and it is on a path to get much worse. The WEF report on The New Plastics Economy offers detailed recommendations for systemic changes that can lead to real improvements.

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I am often frustrated when well-intentioned people suggest consumer choices as the best path toward environmental health.

You've heard it. If we all just do our part and buy fuel-efficient cars, the market will respond and gas-guzzlers will go away. If we all install solar panels on our roofs then we'll be on the way to a renewable energy future. If we all buy organic and locally-grown food, we can transform modern agriculture.

Well, it is true that our personal choices do have some impact. But it is also true that economic systems and cultural expectations are very powerful in shaping how the world works.

The report from the World Economic Forum provides a model that goes beyond the one problem of plastic packaging in the ocean. The report shows the kind of creative analysis and systemic planning that is needed to move from a waste-generating economy to one that is circular and renewable. That level of change requires new international protocols, cooperation between governments and businesses and researchers, new infrastructure for manufacturing and recycling -- and some changes in personal behavior.

The WEF report spells out a challenging set of global changes. I find it hopeful that respected institutions are providing this kind of transformative leadership. All of us who are working for a more just and sustainable world need to affirm and support these initiatives for systemic change.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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