Maybe you have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a gyre of plastic waste that has accumulated in the North Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California. In this region of the ocean, fish eat 12,000 – 24,000 tons of plastic a year (Ocean Plastics Pollution) – but this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problem of how we manage our plastic today and the consequences it might have.
The ever-growing problem of accumulating plastic in our environment is “one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet”, David Barnes, a researcher at the British Antarctic Survey wrote in a 2009 report for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Plastic is in just about everything, from the materials we use to package and transport our goods (this equates to over 2/3 of plastic use) to our actual goods, (being a major building block for technology and clothing). Discarded plastic is covering up to 40% of our ocean surfaces, littering the shorelines, raining down from the sky, and is being consumed by or entangling unsuspecting animals (Ocean Plastics Pollution; Rucevska et al. 2021; One Huge, Tiny Problem 2019).
Plastic is so detrimental because it has been engineered for durability and versatility. Dr. Kim Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana, explained that “the chains that make up the backbone of these different plastics are so complex that there’s no organism out there that can effectively break down those chemical bonds in a natural setting,” (One Huge, Tiny Problem 2019). So, plastic is so resistant to natural forces that instead of decomposing, it erodes down to the size of bacteria (100 billionths of a meter) and is continuously detrimental to the environment and our health (1).
While recycling has long been an appeasement to our plastic concerns, its positive impact is not as redeeming as we might think. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons (MT) of plastic created since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled (“What Happens to All of Our Plastic Trash Once It Enters the Ocean?”). At the rate that we are recycling, with 4-12 million MT of plastic ending up in the oceans each year, by 2050 another 33 billion tons will have gathered (Rucevska et al.2021; Brooks et al. 2018). Part of this is because we simply do not have the infrastructure to process all of the plastic waste we produce.
While there are still gaps in our knowledge on the full impact that plastic has on our health, recent studies are concerning. Plastics are known to contain dangerous chemicals that contaminate their surroundings (Verma et al. 2016). Burying and incinerating plastic allow for the toxins to enter the air, water, and ground (1). This has a negative consequence not only on the vegetation but also on the wildlife and eventually, humans.
Christy Leavitt, head of Oceana’s United States plastic campaign, described microplastics as “magnets” in water, attracting pesticides and flame retardants (One Huge, Tiny Problem 2019). These are then consumed by fish and make their way up the food chain. Studies found that in California, ¼ of the fish on the market have ingested plastic (Ocean Plastics Pollution). On Lord Howe Island in Australia, flesh footed shearwater birds have begun to feed plastic to their chicks – some years 90% of these baby birds are found with bits of it in their stomachs – these will eventually become detrimental to their kidneys and cholesterol levels (One Huge, Tiny Problem 2019).
Plastic does not only pose a health risk to wildlife, however. As a species, humans eat 70,000 particles of plastic a year (1). When plastics are ingested by humans, “inflammation, genotoxicity, oxidative stress, apoptosis, and necrosis” are all found to be side effects, and these are linked to “cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune conditions” (Plastic Pollution Coalition 2019).
The Global Waste Trade
The global waste trade is a process in which countries make an exchange – one country gets to dispose of its plastic waste easily and cheaply, another cheaply obtains high-quality plastic which they then recycle into new products and put back on the market.
China was the world’s largest importer of plastic, accepting 69% of all global exports until 2018, when it imposed a foreign waste ban. The ban stemmed from the public’s rising concern about the country’s pollution rates and public health (Standaert 2017). The nationwide protests inspired China’s government, under Xi Jinping, to respond with a goal to create a “green economy,” (1).
So, what happens to that 69% of the world’s plastic that China used to accept? After the 2018 importation ban, INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization, reported a global rise in illegal plastic pollution trade and illegal waste treatment (Interpol 2021). Plastic, according to the non-profit European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law, is one of the most common types of waste that is detected in transportation violations (Rucevska et al. 2021).
An example of this is in 2013, a Canadian waste company shipped 50 containers of supposedly recyclable plastics to the Philippines. When the shipments were received, they contained mixed household waste, which is considered hazardous as it contains items like batteries and cleaning products (Rucevska et al. 2021). For years, people protested and campaigned in the Philippines, demanding that Canada remove their hazardous materials, but it was only in 2019, after 23 of the waste filled containers had already been dumped into Philippine landfills, that Canada finally agreed to reclaim the leftover containers (Gavilan 2017; Gutierrez 2019).
This is not an isolated incident. Canada is not the only country guilty of this nor the Philippines the only country experiencing illegal dumping. Disturbingly, research is finding that developing countries are continuously the dumping grounds for the developed world (Nuñez-Rocha 2016). This has dated back to the 1980s, when several African countries raised complaints that their land was being used to dispose of waste – this resulted in the Basel Convention on waste trade and a series of international policies regulating this trade – and is largely due to a variance in environmental regulations across international borders (1).
This reveals yet another problem. In most developed countries, waste is not something seen as a direct problem. Yes, there are build-ups of trash bags in the cities and litter on the roadsides, but due to generally stricter environmental regulations, the reality of the harmful effects of plastic waste are shipped off with the plastic itself, to be sorted out by someone else whose children can be found playing among heaps of used syringes and hospital blood-bags (Rucevska et al. 2021).
Studies have found that even while many people are willing to pay extra to recycle, their country’s system is not capable of processing everything and will divert large amounts of plastic to landfills or send it off to another country – also overwhelmed by plastic – to be recycled (Brooks et al. 2018). Part of the problem with this international system is that wealthier countries have the luxury of treating plastic and its detrimental effects in a manner of “out of sight, out of mind.”
The most recent amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which took effect on 1 January 2021, has placed stricter regulations on the international shipment of plastics. Countries are now required to obtain written consent from the receiving countries before cargo leaves the port of origin (EPA 2021). Hopefully, amendments like this will help protect developing countries from this trade and eventually establish a shared responsibility for the safe recycling and disposal of plastic.
In addition, our current society generally functions under a linear economy (Taylor 2020). We unnecessarily view our products as having a strict beginning and end. Developing a circular economic system, which mimics a more natural process of transforming and repurposing our goods, will be an important step to stopping our dependence on one-time-use plastics and reducing the amount of waste in our environment (Taylor 2020).
Brooks, Amy L., et al. “The Chinese Import Ban and Its Impact on Global Plastic Waste Trade.” Science Advances, vol. 4, no. 6, 20 June 2018, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat0131.
Chen, H.L., Nath, T.K., Chong, S. et al. The plastic waste problem in Malaysia: management, recycling, and disposal of local and global plastic waste. SN Appl. Sci. 3, 437 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42452-021-04234-y
Gavilan, Jodesz. “TIMELINE: Canada Garbage Shipped to the Philippines.” Rappler, 16 Nov. 2017, www.rappler.com/newsbreak/iq/timeline-canada-garbage-philippines.
Gutierrez, Jason. “Canada Agrees to Take Back Trash Sent to Philippines Years Ago.” The New York Times, 23 May 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/world/asia/philippines-canada-trash.html.
“INTERPOL Report Alerts To Sharp Rise In Plastic Waste Crime”. Interpol, 2021, https://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2020/INTERPOL-report-alerts-to-sharp-rise-in-plastic-waste-crime.
Knoblauch, Jessica A. “Plastic Manufactured in the First 10 Years of This Century Eclipses the Total Produced in the Entire Last Century.” EHN, EHN, 8 Mar. 2021, www.ehn.org/plastic-environmental-impact-2501923191/plastic-manufactured-in-the-first-10-years-of-this-century-eclipses-the-total-produced-in-the-entire-last-century.
Lee, Nathan. “How to Save My Hometown and Asia: The Past and Future of Global Waste Trade.” Zero Waste Europe, 21 Jan. 2021, zerowasteeurope.eu/2020/12/global-waste-trade/.
National University of Ireland Galway. “Plastic recycling from Europe is being dumped in Asian waters: Up to 31 percent of plastic exported for recycling is not recycled at all.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 June 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200630103603.htm>.
Nuñez-Rocha, Thais. Waste Haven Effect: Unwrapping the Impact of Environmental Regulation. Université Paris 1, Panthéon Sorbonne, May 2016, halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-01339837.
“New International Requirements For The Export And Import Of Plastic Recyclables And Waste | US EPA”. US EPA, 2021, https://www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/new-international-requirements-export-and-import-plastic-recyclables-and-waste.
Ocean Plastics Pollution, www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/.
“One Huge, Tiny Problem.” Oceana Magazine, 2019, oceana.org/sites/default/files/winter_2019_magazine_final.pdf.
Plastic Pollution Coalition. “Report: Plastic Threatens Human Health at a Global Scale.” Plastic Pollution Coalition, 20 Feb. 2019, www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/2019/2/20/report-plastic-threatens-human-health-at-a-global-scale.
Rucevska, Ieva, et al. “The Trade in Plastic Waste.” Arcgis.com, 28 Apr. 2017, www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=002738ffb18548818a61cc88161ac464.
Standaert, Michael. “As It Looks to Go Green, China Keeps a Tight Lid on Dissent.” Yale Environment 360, 7 Nov. 2017, e360.yale.edu/features/as-it-looks-to-go-green-china-keeps-a-tight-lid-on-dissent.
Taylor, Liam. “What Is the Linear Economy and Why Do We Need to Go Circular?” Planet Ark – Planet Ark Environmental Foundation, 14 Oct. 2020, planetark.org/newsroom/news/what-is-the-linear-economy-and-why-do-we-need-to-go-circular.
Verma, Rinku, et al. “Toxic Pollutants from Plastic Waste- A Review.” Procedia Environmental Sciences, vol. 35, 4 Aug. 2016, pp. 701–708.
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