Just One Word: Plastics
Scientists call for reclassifying plastics as hazardous zaste, and banning the worst of them.
|Malo Herry is an intern for Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2013.|
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|BY MALO HERRY | MAY 14, 2013|
In the March online issue of Nature, a group of scientists argued plastic should be treated as hazardous waste. They specifically urge the biggest producers—USA, Europe and Japan—to take measures to modify the current production and consumption trends. In the US, the EPA estimates 45 percent of plastics are used as containers and packaging, and that only 12 percent of these are recycled. In 2012, 280 million metric tons of plastic were produced worldwide. These scientists project that a total of 33 billion metric tons will have been produced by 2050. Less than half of the discarded plastic ends up in the landfill; the rest ends up in the wind and sea. Currently, it is classified as solid waste, such as food or glass.
Public institutions have tried to grapple with plastic pollution for decades. For instance, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) was signed in 1973 to minimize pollution from dumping and exhaust pollution with a complete ban on the disposal of plastics at sea in 1988. Since then, problems such as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” have gotten worse. In the European Union, the REACH law to regulate hazardous chemicals is described as the most complex sets of rules in the EU’s history and could have a significant impact, though will take years to demonstrate its effects. Even stronger suggestions exist though, such as the Center for Biological Diversity petitioning the EPA to develop rules on plastic pollution under the Clean Water Act. Still, the situation is getting worse and governments seem unable or at least unwilling to tackle the issue.
They also condemn the preferential treatment offered to the plastic industry. While food or pharmaceutical industries have to prove that their products are safe, plastic producers ask governments to prove that plastic is not safe. The authors recognize the lack of research to make definitive statements on the risks of plastic toxicity, but there is enough to invoke the precautionary principle. Regulations need to be changed to head towards a closed-loop system where plastics are re-used and recycled, starting with the most dangerous one. To those arguing the plastic industry is an important sector during an economic crisis, the authors remind readers of the costs of dealing with plastic debris. For instance, the Division of Maintenance in the California Department of Transportation reports spending approximately $41 million a year just on litter removal. Some plastic manufacturers are already working on closed-loop systems and safer materials to boost innovation. Scientists call the biggest producers to “act now,” as plastic pollution is getting worse every day and the window to deal with it effectively is closing.
Mr. Macguire in The Graduate was right, “there is a great future in plastics.” Not in unregulated production of 280 million tons a year, but in changing policies to ban the worst of them; finding ways to limit consumption of them; redesigning plastics to be environmentally benign; and in developing a closed-loop production, consumption and recycling system to avoid a catastrophic accumulation of plastic in our environment.