Here is a challenge: Try not to buy single-use plastic for a day. That may be easy, but now try for three days, now try a week, a whole month. Resisting products packaged in single-use plastics may not always be in control of the consumer. Single-use plastics are commonly used for one –time use, such as water and soda bottles, straws, coffee stirrers, and food packaging. It is difficult not to buy products using single-use plastic because it is everywhere.
According to the World Economic Forum, world plastic production has doubled over the past 50 years. The world has a plastic pollution problem and it’s snowballing- but so is public awareness of who is responsible for this waste.
Every year, an estimated 18 billion of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans from coastal regions. That’s an equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash piled up on every foot of coastline on the planet. All that plastic is causing harm to the creatures that live in the ocean, from coral reefs smothered in bags, to turtles gagging on straws, to whales and seabirds that starve because their bellies are so jammed with bits of plastic that there is no room for real food.
About 40 percent of all plastic produced is used in packaging, and much of that is used only once and then discarded. Less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled.
Humanity’s dependence on single-use plastic grows stronger with the passing of every year. It is lightweight, flexible, relatively inexpensive and durable. Plastic retains some of the most attractive qualities in any material, and humans have acquired an insatiable appetite for its boundless creations. Though the issue of plastic arises from the very fact it is too durable- it simply never goes away.
Besides its widespread reality, the waste plastic creates is wreaking havoc on the environment at an alarming rate.
It is not impossible to eliminate plastic- though it will require clever engineering and applied science, and technology. In Africa, although major steps have been taken to emphasize recyclability, reduction and elimination of plastic waste, most companies are still ducking their responsibility to tackle plastic pollution.
The problem with plastics is not new. From decades the plastics and packaging industry has combined with food and beverages companies to frame it as a ‘litter’ problem. Individuals littering are the problem, and it’s the responsibility of individuals to fix it. Public concern is effectively funnelled to clean-up’ events, while industries responsible for plastic production successfully weaken and postpone any policies that effectively would limit the growth of plastic. Industries have successfully avoided responsibility for ever-increasing amounts of single-use plastic. This has, in turn, resulted in a plastic pollution crisis.
The slow-burning crisis of plastic pollution has leapt beyond environmental concerns to hit the headlines in many countries. Despite the flurry of negative stories, the playbook suggested by those really responsible remains the same: “more recyclable packaging,” “more recycling “and “voluntary targets.”
Despite all the evidence that recycling is not the answer, it’s still pushed as the first priority. Most of this is down cycling to low-grade plastics. Even when effectively collected, a high portion of plastic packaging is impossible to recycle. Like the convenience of plastic packaging, pushing recycling first is convenient for avoiding responsibility.
The #breakfreefromplastic campaign has gone beyond the global scale with global audits of plastic pollution. For the last two years, volunteers have organized hundreds of plastic pollution cleanup events and audited what they collect, to create a unique insight into exactly which companies are most responsible. Of 147,000 pieces of plastic collected in 2018, the biggest polluters are Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Danone, Mondelez International, P&G, Unilever, Perfetti Van Melle, Mars and Colgate-Palmolive.
Tackling plastic pollution requires dramatic reductions in quantities of single-use packaging and focusing product design and changing business models to increase reuse. Any company skipping straight to recycling as the solution is ignoring proven waste reduction strategies in favour of failed non-solutions.
In Africa, major companies such as Unilever, Nestle P&G created the sachet economy. These are packaging they knew was impossible to recycle, inevitably creating a new type of waste. Small sachets products from these companies such as soap have made laundry rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, nurseries and bathrooms a little more enjoyable. What we do not know is the impending disaster caused by those single-use plastics both to our health and the environment.
The first part of being a solution to a problem is taking responsibility for your part of the problem. The problem and who is responsible is clear. Therefore, whoever is responsible should show support for the regulation to reduce plastic packaging and withdraw from industries that delay, weaken or undermine the regulation.
Unless these companies take responsibility for the waste they create by not opposing mandatory regulations to reduce plastic pollution, they remain the major problem to Africa’s plastic pollution menace. Any company serious about tackling climate change also has to get serious about reducing its own use of fossil fuel-based plastics.
Mitigating plastic pollution crisis will require a complete switch away from the last 50 years of farming and lobbying that created this crisis. Only companies clearly accepting their responsibility to radically reduce consumption of single-use plastic can be considered real leaders.