World’s plastic binge ‘as dangerous as climate change’
A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021 creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.
The demand, equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being bought every second, is driven by an apparently insatiable desire for bottled water and the spread of a western, urbanised “on the go” culture to China and the Asia Pacific region.
Most plastic bottles used for soft drinks and water are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is highly recyclable. But as their use soars across the globe, efforts to collect and recycle the bottles to keep them from polluting the oceans, are failing to keep up.
Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead, most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.
Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Experts warn that some of it is already finding its way into the human food chain.
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Last year, the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research, citing increasing concern for human health and food safety “given the potential for microplastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”.
Plastic bottles are a big part of the huge surge in usage of a material first popularised in the 1940s. Most of the plastic produced since then still exists – the petrochemical-based compound takes hundreds of years to decompose.
Major drinks brands produce the greatest numbers of plastic bottles. Coca-Cola produces more than 100bn throwaway plastic bottles every year â€“ or 3,400 a second, according to analysis carried out by Greenpeace after the company refused to publicly disclose its global plastic usage. The top six drinks companies in the world use a combined average of just 6.6% of recycled PET in their products, according to Greenpeace. A third have no targets to increase their use of recycled plastic and none are aiming to use 100% across their global production.
Plastic drinking bottles could be made out of 100% recycled plastic, known as RPET â€“ and campaigners are pressing big drinks companies to radically increase the amount of recycled plastic in their bottles. However, brands are hostile to using RPET for cosmetic reasons because they want their products in shiny, clear plastic, according to Steve Morgan, of Recoup in the UK.
Coca Cola said it was still considering requests from Greenpeace to publish its global plastics usage. A spokeswoman said: “Globally, we continue to increase the use of recycled plastic in countries where it is feasible and permitted. We continue to increase the use of RPET in markets where it is feasible and approved for regulatory food-grade use â€“ 44 countries of the more than 200 we operate in.”
She agreed plastic bottles could be made out of 100 percent recycled plastic, but there was nowhere near enough high quality food grade plastic available on the scale that was needed to increase the quantity of RPET to that level.
“So if we are to increase the amount of recycled plastic in our bottles even further, then a new approach is needed to create a circular economy for plastic bottles,” she said.
Greenpeace said the big six drinks companies had to do more to increase the recycled content of their plastic bottles. “During Greenpeace’s recent expedition exploring plastic pollution on remote Scottish coastlines, we found plastic bottles nearly everywhere we went,” said Louisa Casson, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace.
“It’s clear that the soft drinks industry needs to reduce its plastic footprint.”