For the most part, we all know how extensive worldwide plastic use is and many dangerous issues surrounding this plastic use. But what needs to be focused on is what is truly being done about it, who is doing it and why isn’t more being done in this time of environmental crisis.
Specifically, the United States and European Union are prime examples of developed entities that produce a large amount of the world’s plastic waste and yet have considerable difficulties with waste management. Their inability to properly dispose or recycle plastic has resulted in increased land and air pollution and passing of the responsibility (both directly and indirectly) onto developing countries.
In addition to these impacts, improper plastic waste management within a consumerism society wreaks havoc on marine biodiversity. The abundance of plastic in the ocean has caused habitat destruction and harm to marine animals; not to mention unknown long-term effects of micro-plastic toxins (Sheavly and Register, 2007). But studies have found that with modern technology we are in fact capable of properly reusing our plastic.
In fact, many studies find the issue is that we are collectively susceptible to fallacies regarding plastic reduction and renewal because of our capitalist society and therefore, fail to implement strong environmental policies and recycle correctly. These studies will be examined mainly in the context of the U.S. and EU as two global hegemons with similar societal structures and plastic production.
That being said, this paper will focus on the plastic waste management within the U.S. and EU, where this plastic waste actually goes and what the possible solutions are for plastic reduction in the world today.
What’s the story?
Since 1907 (when plastic was first invented), where there is consumerism there is plastic. A study by Gaelle Gourmelon identifies that global plastic production is increasing as of 2015 and the most extensive production falls mainly within the U.S., EU and China. Not only are plastic materials comparatively cheap but they generate $600 million in revenue globally each year. It appears that plastic use is inseparable to consumerism in each society. And despite environmentalist efforts, the demand for plastic is higher than ever.
Although there are many uses for plastic today, packaging is the most commonly used, responsible for 40% of plastic produced in Europe and 42% in the U.S. (Gourmelon, 2015). With world powers such as the EU and U.S. both producing and exporting substantial amounts of plastic waste, you would think more waste management policies would be put into place. But each country is far from implementing the proper change needed to save the environment from all of this harmful plastic.
Despite the U.S. and EU having some similar practices of plastic waste management, the EU seems to be comparatively better at its waste reduction. The study by Gourmelon also notes how nine European countries have put bans on plastic disposal in landfills where the U.S. has made no such ban in any state. However, this plastic disposal ban does not account for a possible increased exportation of plastic to other countries. But, as of 2018, 39.1% of plastic is recycled in Europe. The EU is also in the process of developing a ban that makes all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 in order to prevent more excess plastic waste (O’Neill, 2018).
Europe’s agreement to make all packaging plastic recyclable is a major start to solving the plastic waste issue. This plan is determined to provide economic aid to creating recyclable plastics meanwhile creating many more jobs to make this happen. The leader of the European Commission running this project acknowledges in his states that “we need plastics, but we need better plastics” (The European Union, 2018). Actions such as these are the only way to create a safe environment for people and wildlife around the world.
From the outside, the EU seems to prioritize environmental policies more so than within the United States. David Lazarevic et al discuss in an article about how Europe has in fact made several movements to better plastic waste management. For example, in 2000, there was an establishment put forth to limit emissions to air and water by municipal solid waste incineration whereby “recycled plastic originates from clean plastic waste fractions with little organic contamination” and “recycled plastic substitutes virgin plastics at a ratio of 1:1”.
Then in 2005, the European Commission’s Thematic Strategy declared the long-term goal of Europe to be a “recycling society” (Lazarevic et al, 2010). However, when the EU sets these establishments “each country’s government is responsible for implementing these directives” in any way that suits them (Brems et al, 2012). Because of the lenient establishments by the EU each country has varying extents of environmental protection and waste management systems. In this way, the EU has put forth many intentions to create a more “green” union of countries and often times just left it at that.
The U.S. on the other hand too often resorts to exporting or unsustainably disposing of the plastic where only 9% is recycled within the country (Plumer, 2015). An article by Faye Duchin and Glenn-Marie Lange looking at recycling in the U.S. in 1997 is particularly interesting because it seems like nothing much has changed since. Duchin and Lange look at the complexity of any solution to excess plastic noting that the EPA had “targeted recycling as more important than source reduction”.
This statement seems unequivocal to the lack of policies made for increasing recycling or prevention of the plastic production which cannot be recycled. Because of this lack in recycling policies, most of the waste was still held in landfills. It was estimated in the article that by 2005 limited capacity would result in the closure of many landfills (Duchin and Lange, 1997). While some landfills have been closed in the U.S. since 1997, the real issue today is with exportation and incineration of waste which will be discussed later.
Where is it really going?
Now that various EU and U.S. waste management strategies have been examined, next is what is actually happening to all of the plastic waste in both regions of the world. The most paramount issue regarding plastic waste currently is China’s ban on contaminated waste imports as of March 2018. Many developed countries rely on China for the exportation of plastic waste and pre-ban “China received 56% of waste plastic imports worldwide”. Europe alone exported 87% of plastic waste to China “intended for recycling” (Gourmelon, 2015). The U.S. had also exported more than 70% of plastic waste to China before the ban (McVeigh, 2018).
Since China has enforced strict rules on their acceptance of waste imports, where has all the contaminated waste gone? Well, according to the Guardian the U.S. has been immensely struggling with this newfound responsibility of handling their own waste production and disposal. The plastic waste burden lifted from China has now been heavily put on other poor countries as “half of plastic waste exported from the U.S. for recycling was shipped to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam for the duration of 2018” (McVeigh, 2018).
Now these countries are considering also banning their waste imports as they are quickly becoming overfilled with imported plastic waste. In addition to exportation, the U.S. has turned to the incineration of plastics mainly in areas surrounding black and Latino communities. (Milman, 2019). The incineration of plastic is extremely dangerous due to its emission of dioxins resulting in many health issues. Therefore, not only is the U.S. incompetent with waste management but has committed to acts of environmental racism by causing dangerous health issues for these minority communities.
Besides waste management in relation to the China ban, there have been some solutions for plastic waste over time. A study by P.M. Subramanian takes a positive look at recycling in the U.S. Subramanian acknowledges all forms of plastic reuse today such as recycling, incineration with energy recovery (steam), gasification (low-energy gas), pyrolysis (possible recovery of monomers) and hydrocracking catalytic cracking (hydrocarbons). These waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies are seen as a positive alternative to plastic disposal. However, the article does not acknowledge the possible gas leakage or any other issues related to WTE. In addition to these modern technologies, the article notes that the amount of plastic recycled has increased and as of 2000 78% of people in the U.S. have “access to recycling programs”. Now, while a majority of citizens may have “access” to recycling programs this does not determine how many people actually recycle and whether the recycling programs are doing their job. Finally, to no surprise (as nothing has indeed changed since 2000) the consensus of the article is that we need “dedication to higher environmental policy” and “life cycle analysis of plastic products” (Subramanian, 2000). We may know the differences in the plastic products made today but strict environmental policies still struggle to emerge.
As for Europe, the countries have been indecisive with which is the best way of recycling plastic. Europe has also pushed most of its plastic waste onto other countries and is uncertain of where the plastic ends up after exported (Lazarevic et al, 2010). Because of varying strategies regarding plastic waste in different countries of the EU, the China ban has impacted them in different ways. Some countries such as the Netherlands have no problem selling their plastics as they were doing before the ban. As for others, most of their plastic was exported which has resulted in crises. These countries have therefore exported plastic to the same countries as the U.S. has now or simply begun overextending the use of their landfills (Tamma, 2018). The situation in the EU is not that much better or therefore, different than the U.S. today.
Since it seems that both the U.S. and the EU have difficulty reducing plastic waste, the issue could be that there is no guaranteed solution or it could be the simple failure for leaders to agree on policy implementations. There are various studies which support the modern technologies available for plastic reduction. One article by Anke Brems et al analyzes the technologies mentioned earlier such as gasification and pyrolysis which all have issues such as possible gas leakage but also have their own beneficial aspects. For instance, gasification can be used as a “substitute for natural gas” and “prevents the formation of dioxins”. Despite any possible dangers of these practices, the article supports plastic incineration due to its reduction of waste by 90%, destruction of potential harmful substances in the waste, and safe methodology for handling hazardous plastic waste (Brems, 2012). Considering the alternatives, these types of recycling may be the best we have right now.
Regarding the U.S. and EU specifically, modern technologies could be making important change now with necessary support. One study finds that within Europe “over 50% of plastic packaging could be recycled eco-efficiently with today’s available technologies”. But because the collection and sorting of the plastic is highly problematic the article also supports chemical recycling. Chemical recycling does not require the separation of contaminated plastic waste but converts the material into smaller molecules for recycling (Ragaert et al, 2017). Another article that analyzed alternative policies in order to increase recycling plastic water bottles in the U.S. suggest economic incentives. No surprise here: the leading nation based on unapologetic capitalism needs financial incentives to recycle. The study finds that the only ways to increase recycling is to reduce the time committed to recycling or create financial rewards for the both the public and corporations alike (Viscusi et al, 2012). That being said both modern ways of recycling and economic incentives to recycle can create the imperative change we need for plastic reduction.
What’s the problem?
So, we have established the many modern technologies available for plastic reduction. What we cannot separate from part of the solution is the society we live in as mentioned above; the economic incentives. Plastic production and continuation of this production is intertwined with our consumerism habits today. In one article by Chelsea M. Rochman et al a solution is proposed to classify plastic waste as hazardous to prevent the production of any plastics that cannot be reused or recycled. Of course – this is what has been argued for in every article. But the authors use the example of when CFCs were classified as hazardous under the Montreal Protocol which resulted in the ceased production of CFCs within a few years. By classifying plastic waste as hazardous, the article suggests we would create a closed-loop system where we do not treat plastic waste as “grass clippings”.
Also, it is simply a necessary act due to the dangerous chemicals such as phthalates, BPA and heavy metals that appear in some forms of plastic (Singh and Sharma, 2016). This classification would also most likely gain many civilians’ support who would see it as protection against harmful chemicals and could save a lot of money. And because we live in a capitalist society the economic gains should be acknowledged too; the removal of plastic from the west coast of the U.S. costs “taxpayers $520 million each year” (Rochman et al, 2013). If classifying certain plastics as hazardous lessened plastic production, the public would be paying much less in taxes to the sorting and disposing of plastic waste.
Alongside the example of expense in taxpayer dollars, some articles argue it is solely fossil fuel corporations that convince the people the economy will collapse without them. One article by Hunter L. Lovins is among these articles, supporting a so-called “climate capitalism” where saving the planet is saving money. Human-induced climate change is causing more expense than the production is worth. Not to mention that the continuation of fossil fuel industries alone would result in increased cross-border conflict, mass migration and economic and political collapse.
The article goes on to give examples of energy savings that saved companies millions of dollars. One example is DuPont who reduced emissions by 80% in a couple years saving them $2.2 billion a year (Lovins, 2010). Today companies are always concerned with savings and growing their businesses (with good reason) but this is no excuse for sacrificing the environment. It is proven time and time again that reducing emissions and considering the environment will pay off for financial gains.
In terms of waste management, both the U.S. and EU will remain societies of capitalism with substantial plastic reduction. We are not sacrificing our economic standing for the sake of the environment but rather creating a win-win situation by investing in plastic reduction now. The fear of possible economic collapse and instability is preventing both corporations and agencies from acting on demands for environmental protection. In addition to the at-home issues within the U.S. and EU, these entities cannot continue to put their waste onto other countries. This is sure to cause increased worldwide conflict which again will result in more instability for the developed world. The only way to ensure environmental, political, and financial stability for the future and for all beings is to prioritize the environment now.
What Can We Do?
Plastic waste reduction can be achievable in entities such as the U.S. and EU by modern technology and implementing strict policies. Many of the articles looked at in this paper have the same suggestions and conclusions of the U.S. and EU waste management policies whether they were written twenty years ago or two days ago. It is no surprise that the U.S. and EU are responsible for a majority of plastic waste in the world.
But the important thing is to realize that these nations’ current plastic waste management strategies are obviously unsustainable and changing these strategies could result in a lot of support from around the world for various reasons.
Especially now, with China’s ban on contaminated waste imports it is the United States and Europe’s chance and duty to redesign their waste management policies. They could classify certain plastics as hazardous, commit to forms of chemical recycling and ban single-use plastic for the benefit of the environment and their finances. Considering the current environmental international norms, the public may not cause too much strife over these policies and could be promised economic returns with the revenue from plastic reduction.
Saving our environment from plastic is really only about correcting the fallacies of the relationship between the economy and environmental protection and these nations committing to strict environmental policies.
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