The words of the year are «upcycling», «climate emergency», and «climate strike». The person of the year is Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old environmental activist from Sweden. The threat of the year is microplastics, which are now found everywhere: in clothes, food, and water, toothpaste, soap, and detergents.
Climate change, carbon footprint, single-use plastics are no longer a territory of obsessed weirdos, environmental friendliness is a new fashionable trend. Coldplay cancels their tour to avoid harm to the environment. Designer Stella McCartney creates environmentally friendly plant-based furs advertised by Natalia Vodianova. Ukrainian rap star Alyona Alyona says that «plastic nicht fantastic.» Every Ukrainian lifestyle media found it mandatory to mention the «Greta effect,» and each just had to explain how to sort packaging properly and what a composter was. Textile grocery bags and bamboo takeaway coffee cups are inevitable attributes of Instagram stories and Facebook posts.
Single-use plastics have become a shameful component of everyday life. But why is this wave of anger and condemnation rising just now, while the problem of plastic waste developed much earlier? And what do we do to actually influence the situation, rather than just muffle our guilt for straws and cups?
In November 2019, Internationaler Arbeitskreis e.V. in partnership with Center for Society Research (CEDOS Think Tank) supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany organized educational exchanges for urban grassroots activists from Ukraine and Germany. The project was titled the Local Activists Dialogue for Cohesive Cities. As the continuation of the project, Mistosite presents the series of media publications about the (un)fairness in the contemporary urban milieu.
Zaporizhzhia was one of the cities that participants of the educational exchange visited during their trip to Ukraine. Air quality and industrial pollution are key challenges for this city. During their visit to Zaporizhzhia, participants discussed climate change and ecological problems. Moreover, participants argued on whom the responsibility of resolving these issues lies. In the following article, we discuss the single-use plastic and why we have to be critical towards its production, not the consumption.
8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced by humankind in the almost 70 years since its mass-production began in the 1950s. To comprehend these impressive volumes, imagine the tallest building in New York, the 103-storey Empire State Building, filled entirely with plastic. And now imagine another 25,000 skyscrapers like that next to it.
In 1950, factories produced 2 million tonnes of plastic; in 2015, they produced 380 million tonnes. Less than a third of everything that has been produced is still in use now; and of all the plastic that has gone to waste, only 9% has been recycled, 12% was safely incinerated, and 79% is just lying there in landfills. These are the data from one of the most comprehensive studies of the production and distribution of plastics as of 2017.
However, enormous volumes of plastic waste don’t even end up in landfills; instead, they poison the World Ocean. According to scientific estimates, 8 more million tonnes of plastics are added to the ocean every year. Garbage, washed off the shores and brought by rivers, floats in the ocean until it arrives in the places of its accumulation, where sea currents cross. This produces veritable «garbage continents,» of which the largest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, weighs almost 80 million tonnes and stretches over the area of 1.6 billion square kilometers.
Garbage islands are a perfect environment for the growth of harmful bacteria and for the death of entire ecosystems. Turtles, dolphins, whales, various fish, and birds die by getting trapped in the garbage or by ingesting it, thinking that it’s food. In his Midway project, the photographer Chris Jordan shows what happens to chicks of the biggest albatross colony in the world when their parents feed them plastic from the shore waters. According to UN calculations, about a million seabirds and a hundred thousand sea mammals die because of plastic waste every year. From time to time, coastal regions report news about finding 6 kilograms of plastic in a dead whale, including a pair of flip-flops and 115 plastic cups.
In 2018, National Geographic published a special project titled Planet or Plastic? The issue cover featured a giant plastic bag resembling an iceberg in the ocean, captioned «18 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.» The pages presented striking images of people and animals among garbage from all over the world: a seahorse wrapped around a cotton swab near the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, a turtle stuck in an old fishing net in the Mediterranean Sea near Spain, hyenas scavenging in a landfill in Ethiopia.
Still, all this information is not new to us. Scientists have been warning about the threat of increasing plastic manufacturing for decades. Humanity crossed the mark of 100 million tonnes per year back in the early 1990s. Discussions about garbage islands started in the late 1980s, and in 1999, researchers calculated that in the area of its accumulation in the Pacific Ocean, there were 6 times less zooplankton than garbage. So why has the anti-plastic movement only become popular in the past few years?
It feels as if one morning, millions of people across the planet woke up and agreed to act decisively against single-use plastics. What caused this rapid and powerful reaction? The answer is open to discussion, but many specialists agree that microplastics are to blame.
The Plastic We Cannot See
The term «microplastics» was proposed by the marine biologist Richard Thompson in 2004. This was what he called the billions of tiny particles produced by disintegration of ordinary plastic when synthetic clothing is washed when car tires and shoes rub against asphalt, and which are included in soaps, toothpaste, face creams and teabags. The microscopic fragments washed away into the ocean end up in food chains, accumulate in the tissues of living organisms, and finally return to our tables with food and drinking water.
Scientists all over the world have begun to study the properties and spread of microplastics. The mass of publications in the past few years can both amaze and frighten you. Microplastics have been discovered in unexpected places and unexpected amounts: in over 80% of tap water in different corners of the planet, in arctic ice and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, in table salt, honey, beer, fish, and even human excrement. The World Health Organization does not consider microplastics in tap water to be a danger yet, but their effects on the body have not been studied enough. At the same time, researchers have found that a person can consume up to 5 grams of plastic in a week—the weight of a credit card.
In 2015, the American Congress began the consideration of a partial ban on cosmetic products containing microplastic beads. In 2016, a similar decision was being passed by the Parliament of the UK. The media covered these processes extensively, drawing the attention of people who might not have thought about the existence of this problem before.
In the period «before microplastics,» plastic felt like a fully understandable part of life: if you don’t overuse it, clean after yourself, sort your waste, it will do nothing bad. A completely different thing is learning that microplastics are everywhere, and we can’t control their spread. It is not hard to find an environmentally friendly substitute for detergent or a shower gel, but there is no alternative to car tires.
In the minds of millions of people, ordinary everyday objects transformed into a source of contagion. The loss of control over the situation provoked anger, fear, and shame, and therefore a desire to change at least something right now: refuse a straw at a bar, weigh your produce without a plastic bag, take coffee in your own mug. Related actions, petitions, explanations and calls started coming from everywhere: #idontneedaplasticbag, #pouritinmyown, #noexcuseforsingleuse, attracting more and more new faces.
People want to become a part of the resistance against a tangible evil which they can hold in your hands—and therefore destroy. Single-use plastics are a more comprehensible and closer problem than species on the brink of extinction, climate change, or antibiotic resistance. Rejecting single-use plastics at home is a good initiative. However, reducing individual consumption alone does not affect the problem globally. It can be solved through complex approaches, development of national and international policies. The responsibility for single-use plastics lies primarily on manufacturers and governments, not on consumers.
Promises of a Bright Future
«The future of plastics is in the trash can,» predicted Lloyd Stouffer, the editor of the Modern Plastics journal, back in 1956. In the decades after World War II, in the period of rapid economic growth, plastic replaced glass, cardboard, and cotton which most consumer products had been made of, and thin plastic film replaced paper and fabric used for packaging.
Plastic did not just displace other materials from the market but also flipped the consumers’ attitudes towards them upside down. If before 1950, the rate of reuse of packaging such as glass bottles in the US was at 96%, by the 1970s, it fell below 5%. An incredible amount of stuff ended up in landfills because nobody treated a plastic bag as a valuable purchase worth keeping. For businesses—the giants of oil processing and chemical industries such as Mobil, Exxon, DuPont, and Monsanto—this meant constant growth of demand and sky-high profits; for governments, it meant an extra chore and spending to collect, sort and dispose of waste.
In 1969, The New York Times warned of the third environmental crisis looming over big cities, comparing the problem of landfills to water and air pollution. The 1970s were marked by a backlash and the first failed attempts to tame single-use plastics: the US Congress discussed a ban on non-reusable containers, New York introduced a tax on plastic bottles, and Hawaii banned them completely. However, businesses consolidated, suppressed the anti-plastic sentiment in Congress using lobbyists, and canceled the bans through courts.
To avoid these situations in the future, oil and chemical companies, together with packaging and drink manufacturers, developed a strategy of evading responsibility. The central idea was that the people who buy products and litter were to blame, rather than those who make fortunes on single-use plastics. To make this argument sound more persuasive, it was promoted by NGOs such as Keep America Beautiful, which protected the environment for the money of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mobil, and Dow Chemical. КАВ organized Saturday cleanings and published hundreds of public service announcements. Among the most famous ones was The Crying Indian, aired on Earth Day in 1971. The main idea of the video was «People start pollution. People can stop it.» This opinion is still echoed in YouTube comments: «I haven’t littered since I was a kid, and this [video] still makes me feel guilty.»
In addition, to reduce the concern about the growing mountains of trash made of packaging and drink containers, companies invested in promoting the then-innovative idea of local waste recycling. They claimed this would keep their products away from landfills. Industrial unions and associations created consulting bodies that promised to increase recycling rates and resolve the problem of plastic waste once and for all. In 1988, Los Angeles Times wrote, that Mobil was spending «tens of thousands of dollars in an elaborate public relations campaign» intended to slow the ban on polystyrene foam containers. In particular, they complained in respected newspapers and magazines such as Time that their products were actually just «the scapegoat, not the problem.» Right about then, another industry association, the American Plastics Council, stated that by the year 2000, plastic will become «the most recycled material.»
All these promises share one indisputable flaw: in fact, plastic is one of the worst materials for recycling. While glass, steel, aluminum can be melted and reshaped practically forever, and the new products will not be of a lower quality than the old ones, plastic significantly degrades with each cycle and loses its value. Some things, such as super-thin plastic bags, cannot be recycled at all—they can only be incinerated. In short, recycling of single-use plastics is not commercially attractive, it remains at an extremely low level (the US recycles less than 10%), and in many countries, it is subsidized by the government. Meanwhile, the interests of the manufacturers remain intact: the demand for cups, straws, disposable tableware, film and bags does not disappear, they cannot be made of old plastic, so the production volumes of new plastic are not falling.
Sometimes environmental activists play on the word «recycling,» replacing it with «wish-cycling,» and they call waste sorting containers next to private houses «magic boxes» intended to reassure people rather than save the planet from household waste. In addition, with the growth of environmental consciousness and people’s awareness, businesses that package their products with single-use plastics have mastered the marketing tricks of greenwashing (imitating care for the environment for the purpose of preserving one’s profits, reducing costs, or advertising a product or service). A good example is the so-called «bio bags» at the checkout counters in major Ukrainian supermarket chains, particularly Novus or ATB, as well as in Roshen stores. In fact, they are not «bio» or «eco» at all, because they’re made of 98-99% regular polyethylene with a small fraction of oxo-biodegradable additive mixed in, which accelerates their disintegration into microplastics. So there seems to be no plastic bag anymore, but toxic fragments still seep into the soil and groundwater.
The industry businesses will not give up the manufacturing of single-use plastic products on their own, because they have invested in equipment and they want not just to get a return on their investment, but also to make a profit. The situation can be influenced in any significant way only by introducing legislation that will make the manufacturing and use of plastic less convenient for companies and encourage them to move on to biodegradable analogs. For example, a partial or complete ban on non-recyclable products; an additional tax for manufacturers, importers and/or sellers, consumers; obliging the manufacturers to collect, recycle and dispose of the waste originating from their products.
It all starts with manufacturers and sellers who package goods in plastic without asking the consumers, leaving them no choice. Each Ukrainian supermarket chain offers these products without an environmentally friendly alternative: eggs only in non-recyclable cartons, spices packaged in zip bags, vegetables, and fruit wrapped in plastic film. There are still coffee shops that refuse to give you coffee in your own cup, and stores that don’t want to weigh produce without a bag. Specialized sections and shelves in supermarkets or shops offering eco-friendly and waste-free products cannot solve the problem either. These products are much more expensive than their non-environmentally-friendly counterparts, so they are affordable mostly to people with above-average incomes.
Some companies are already introducing alternatives to plastic packaging or at least reducing it. Starbucks and McDonald’s are jointly developing a compostable cup, promising to introduce it within two years. For your information, 600 billion single-use cups are used in the world every year, of which 4% come from Starbucks and McDonald’s. LEGO promised to give up oil-based plastic entirely in favor of plastic made of sugarcane. Coca-Cola has declared its intent to make at least 50% of its plastic packaging across the world from recycled materials by 2030. By the way, the company is the leader of plastic pollution of the planet, according to the Break Free From Plastic brand audit for 2019. The Ukrainian top 5 included IDS Group (Morshynska, Myrhorodska, Truskavetska), AB InBev Efes (Chernihivske, Rohan, Zhyhulivske), PepsiCo (Pepsi, Lipton, Sandora, Lays), Phillip Morris (Parliament, Marlboro, L&M) and Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite).
Over 30 countries in the world have already banned plastic bags completely, over 50 have either partially banned them or introduced a considerable tax on their sale. According to the UN, about 160,000 plastic bags are used in the world every second. Only one miserable percent ends up recycled. Every Ukrainian uses around 500 plastic bags every year; in the EU, this number stays at around 90. People mostly take bags to carry groceries home from the supermarket. This takes 20 minutes on average, and then the plastic ends up in landfills and disintegrates for decades, if not for centuries.
In Denmark, a newly introduced tax reduced the use of plastic bags by 90%; in Ireland, by 95%. Turkey has announced that in the first year of its ban, it saved 150 tonnes of plastic and reduced the use of plastic bags by 75%. Scotland gave up cotton swabs, Great Britain did the same and also gave up plastic straws. In the US, these decisions are made by each state or city individually. For instance, California has banned plastic bags, and plastic straws for drinks are provided by coffee shops and restaurants only at the customer’s request.
In Belarus, there will be no single-use tableware in restaurants from 2021 on. Georgia banned plastic bags back in 2018, Moldova and Kazakhstan have limited their circulation and plan to ban them completely by 2021 and 2025, respectively. The EU intends to give up single-use plastics by 2021, the European Parliament has approved a ban on tableware, straws, cotton swabs, bottles, and their caps, coffee cups, and trays. Any country that has no proper alternative will have to solve the problem on its own. Meanwhile, the average European recycling rate is 46%, with Germany at 66% as the leader in the ranking.
Germans sort their waste according to 10 categories, and over a hundred garbage recycling plants with a total capacity of 18 million tonnes operate in the country. Since German citizens produce 16 million tonnes of waste, the remaining amount for the plants to operate at full capacity is bought from the neighboring countries. Despite its exemplary recycling rates, Germany is still concerned about the increase in the percentage of plastic in household waste and plans to reduce the use of plastic bags from 2020 on.
Reality and Prospects
The social demand for a similar decision has developed in Ukraine by now. A large-scale survey on climate change has found that 89.4% of Ukrainians are prepared to give up single-use plastics in favor of reusable alternatives. In April, the City Council in Lviv initiated and conducted the Day Without Polyethylene—for the first time in Ukraine, such action was organized at a citywide level. 17 shopping malls and about 100 stores in Lviv participated in it. In July, a similar action on the International Plastic Bag Free Day was joined by almost half of regional centers and over a hundred companies. Some chain stores removed plastic bags from their counters completely, others kept the plastic bags, but also offered other kinds of packaging.
The garbage situation in the country is critical. Every year, about 500 million tonnes of various waste is produced in Ukraine, of which 11 million tonnes is household waste. According to the Ministry of Energy and Environmental Protection, 3.9 million tonnes of waste is made of packaging. Almost all the waste ends up in landfills—94.4%, only 3.09% is recycled, another 2.7% is incinerated. Waste is buried in dumps which cover the area of over 10,000 hectares. Of the 5,470 registered landfills, 5.6% are filled above their capacity, another 30% do not meet the requirements of environmental safety. The Ministry emphasizes: the amount of plastic waste is growing every year.
Attention to the scale of the problem was drawn by the Lviv garbage crisis in 2016, when two firemen, a rescue worker, and a municipal worker died under a garbage slide in the Hrybovychi Landfill. A few days before the tragedy, a fire started in the landfill, whose term of exploitation expired 10 years ago. While the local government was looking for a plot for a new landfill, over 8.5 thousand tonnes of unremoved garbage accumulated in Lviv, producing a horrible stench. Now the city is preparing to build a garbage processing complex according to European standards. This is the first project of its kind in Ukraine; the plant is scheduled to launch in two years.
In November, the Verkhovna Rada approved in the first reading the bill to reduce the number of plastic bags, which was developed by NGO ReThink in cooperation with MPs. It provides that all plastic bags should be removed from retail chains, supermarkets, stores, markets, kiosks, cafes, and restaurants, except for the plastic used to package fish and meat, granulated or pellet products, and ice. In addition, the bill bans the use of pseudo-environmentally-friendly oxo-biodegradable plastic bags which disintegrate into microplastics. Fines will be imposed for non-compliance with the distribution rules. Now the bill is in the process of amendment, and then it will be put up for a vote in the second reading.
Scholars and environmental enthusiasts are already prepared to offer containers and packaging materials alternative to plastic: single-use edible tableware made of wheat and corn bran, straws made of pasta and cane, banana leaves instead of stretch film, biodegradable plastics made of fish scales and crustacean shells, as well as of sugarcane and starch. But their manufacturing today costs much more than their plastic counterparts, so the business is not yet sufficiently interested in these ideas to invest in their development.
The three whales of conscious consumption are «reduce, reuse, recycle.» They go in that order precisely: reduction of waste is the first step towards solving the problem. So I’m going to rephrase the most famous environmental clip of the 1970s: «Manufacturers start pollution. Manufacturers can stop it.»