• Who Is Responsible for Plastic Pollution?

Waste Management

Who Is Responsible for Plastic Pollution?

Jul 27 2020

Plastic pollution is a problem that afflicts every part of our planet, even those far removed from human population. What about the Arctic Circle? Yep, polystyrene debris has been discovered around a thousand miles from the North Pole. How about the deepest depths of our seas and oceans? Unfortunately, not even the Mariana Trench is safe from plastic pollution, despite being 11,000m beneath the surface of the waves.

Plastic can endure in the environment for over a millennium. During that time, it can break down into even more dangerous microplastics, which are tiny pieces of debris that can be mistaken by marine life for food and become ingested, causing all kinds of damage to their internal organs. Over time, accumulations of plastic can even work their way up the food chain, jeopardising human health eventually. But while the scale of the plastic pollution problem should not be in doubt, it’s less clear who is responsible.

The blame game

Although societal conscientiousness over the damaging effects of plastic pollution has grown steadily in recent years, there is still much confusion over how to tackle the problem. Some of the more extravagant solutions involve complicated combinations of science and technology, such as the interesting and innovative marriage of forensic science and artificial intelligence.

However, the best method of tackling plastic pollution is at its root cause. The plastic industry – the ones responsible for manufacturing these products in the first place – have shirked responsibility for decades, instead claiming that they are merely responding to consumer demand and that unsustainable recycling habits and rampant littering among the populace are to blame.

It certainly is true that current recycling rates leave a lot to be desired. In the UK, around 45% of our plastics go to recycling, leaving over half which still ends up in landfill or, worse yet, in our seas and oceans. In the USA, that percentage is even less encouraging at just 35%, while even Germany – the most efficient major nation when it comes to plastic recycling – only manages to reuse 68% of its waste.

Holding the industry to account

However, simply blaming individual consumers for the problem is not likely to yield a solution anytime soon. That’s because recycling rules vary not only from country to country, but even town to town within different nations. Not everything can be recycled, and if too many unrecyclable items find their way into a batch of recycling, the whole thing becomes contaminated and must be sent to landfill.

Even at its most efficient, the recycling system is inherently flawed, since a material can only be reused two or three times before it’s obsolete. Meanwhile, almost all new products require the addition of at least some virgin materials, which highlight how recycling is like baling the water out of a sinking ship rather than plugging the holes in the first place.

Instead, governments around the world must stand up to the plastic industry by introducing measures designed to make them accountable for the waste they create. It’s unsurprising that the industry has followed the playbook of Big Tobacco in opposing such legislation and obfuscating the issue, but unless meaningful change is instigated, plastic pollution appears to be a problem that’s only set to deepen in the coming years and decades.


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