It is time to rethink war against plastics

It is time to rethink war against plastics

By James Ratemo,  jratemo@gmail.com;  follow me on twitter: www.twitter.com/KenyaCurrent

War on plastics is a food security issue, it must be won by all means possible

As Kenya  joins the world to fight the plastic menace, it is time to reflect on the success and failures of the campaign so far.

Still the banned plastic products are finding their way into the country and not much attention has been given to recycling of the products which are increasingly becoming an environmental eyesore.

Most Kenyan traders are yet to find a cost effective alternative to plastics and still the products are available cheaply through some unscrupulous distributors.

It would be prudent to keep punishing the users of the banned products but still we need urgent solutions on managing the available plastics in the market.

It is true, the widespread use of plastics has brought many benefits to traders and consumers due to their cost and associated convenience. . However, their increasingly pervasive use and inadequate disposal also have significant environmental impacts.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the manufacture of plastic is highly resource intensive and accounts for 4% to 8% of global oil and gas consumption. Waste plastics can remain in the environment, harming wildlife and marine creatures, for centuries. Yet globally only around 15% of plastic waste is collected for recycling. A quarter is incinerated. The rest ends up in landfill, is burnt in the open air – releasing pollutants and greenhouse gases – or dumped in nature. Much ends up in oceans.

Current researches show that plastics that have not been burnt or recycled, could be in excess of 4.5 billion tons. Much of that has ended up in the ocean, becoming almost impossible to retrieve. Worse still, salt and sunlight cause plastics to break into smaller pieces, micro-plastics which end up being eaten by fish and other marine creatures, and this may even find their way into our meals.
If we slacken the war, the cost to fisheries, tourism, environment and biodiversity will be significant.
This reality should stir manufacturers, traders and consumers into action. We should think of future generations and not be eclipsed by the immediate benefits we accrue from the plastics.

This reality should stir manufacturers, traders and consumers into action. We should think of future generations and not be eclipsed by the immediate benefits we accrue from the plastics.

Plastics have become one of the most used materials on the planet. According to OECD, in 2015 the world produced about 380 million tonnes of plastics , up from 2 million tonnes in the 1950s. Sadly though, only a fifth of plastics is recycled chiefly because collecting, sorting and processing waste plastic is expensive and some plastics cannot be recycled due to the hazardous chemicals used to make them.

The pervasiveness of plastics is becoming an urgent public health not only for Kenya but a planetary problem.

According to OECD, not only is the diffusion of waste plastics into the wider environment creating hugely negative impacts, but plastics production emits approximately 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually as a result of the energy used in their production, transport, and final waste treatment.

According to OECD lates report, plastic recycling is failing to reach its full potential as low recovery rates of plastic waste, poor quality of recycled plastic and a lack of price incentives are holding back secondary plastic markets.

Given rising public concern over plastic pollution,  the report presented at the May 29-31 Global forum on Environment: Sustainable Plastic Design in Copenhagen urges governments to act urgently to encourage more and better recycling.

The report: Improving Markets for Recycled Plastics: Trends, Prospects and Policy Responses attributes the lag in plastic recycling on the fact that it is still cheaper to make new plastic than to produce recycled plastic, partly because of the difficulties involved with separating out different plastic polymers.

Moreover, primary plastic can be priced much higher than recycled plastic as it tends to be of much better quality. Issues with the presence of hazardous chemical additives that can survive in recycled plastic also weigh on secondary markets.  Apparently, the world produces around eight times as much new plastic as recycled plastic.

The report calls for stronger incentives for better design of plastic goods to ensure easy recycling, as well as investment in waste collection infrastructure and ensuring that different types of plastic are properly separated at source. It also recommends the introduction of product labels showing recycled content to help create consumer-driven demand for recycled plastics. In some sectors, required levels of recycled content in goods could be set.

The report also suggests heavier taxes on the manufacture or use of new plastics, for example making consumers pay for single-use plastic bags, cutlery or drinking straws.

The widespread use of plastics has brought many benefits. However, their increasingly pervasive use and inadequate disposal also have significant environmental impacts. The manufacture of plastic is highly resource intensive and accounts for 4% to 8% of global oil and gas consumption. Waste plastics can remain in the environment, harming wildlife and marine creatures, for centuries. Yet globally only around 15% of plastic waste is collected for recycling. A quarter is incinerated. The rest ends up in landfill, is burnt in the open air – releasing pollutants and greenhouse gases – or dumped in nature. Much ends up in oceans.

 

Recycling rates across different polymers vary greatly across countries, with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) which are mostly used for packaging being recycled at relatively high rates (19% to 85%), while polypropylene and polystyrene are much less recycled (1% to 21%). Overall plastic recycling rates range from 30% in the EU to 10% in the United States. In many developing countries, uncontrolled waste collection and treatment is still prevalent.

Barriers that need to be overcome to properly develop secondary plastic markets include:

  • Primary and recycled plastics are treated as substitutes, with no separate demand for recycled plastics This leaves markets for recycled plastics exposed to trends in primary markets.
  • The price of recycled plastics is largely driven by the price of primary plastics, which follow oil prices, rather than the costs of collecting, sorting and processing plastic waste. Producers of recycled plastics thus have few options to adjust their costs in a downturn.
  • The plastics recycling sector is smaller and more fragmented than the primary industry, leaving it at a significant disadvantage in terms of economies of scale and its ability to absorb market shocks, such as the recent collapse in oil prices.
  • Much of the global market for plastics waste has been concentrated in a few countries. This makes markets for recycled plastics vulnerable and slow to adjust to demand shocks such as the import restrictions implemented by China in early 2018 after China had accounted for roughly two thirds of waste plastics imports during the last decade.
  • There are technical challenges associated with the wide range of polymers and additives used, the significant levels of contamination in post-consumer waste plastics, and practical challenges of collecting waste plastics, particularly in lower-income countries.
  • Environmental challenges are posed by the presence of hazardous additives in some waste plastics, concerns over environmental standards in local recycling industries in some parts of the world, and competition between recycling and energy from waste.

The report was presented at the May 29-31 Global forum on Environment: Sustainable Plastic Design in Copenhagen, the first session of which is open to the media.

Download the full report as a PDF

As Mr Steve  Chege, director of  corporate affairs, Safaricom says: The business of business is not just business anymore. Companies can, and should, play a more active role in preserving the environment. We can no longer be passive; we need to actively get involved. It starts with the smallest of actions.

Nobel laureate Prof Wangari Maathai, one of Kenya’s most widely celebrated environmental conservation champions, used to say that it’s the little things citizens do that make a difference.  She used to refer to a humming bird that attempted to put off a forest fire by fetching water using its beak. It was the little bird’s little thing in putting off the fire. Prof Maathai’s ‘little thing’ was planting trees.

What’s your little thing? Find it and do it.

Lessons from South Africa

The South African Plastics Recycling Organisation (SAPRO) represents the plastics re-processors in South Africa. Its members procure sorted, baled end-of-life plastics and re-process it into raw material. The recycled material can be used to manufacture new plastics products. Recyclate can be used as a percentage of the final material mix and in some cases can even solely be used to produce new products. South Africa is amongst the top recycling countries in the world.

SAPRO assists recyclers in:

  • Building a recycling industry that is respected and acknowledged by government, industry and the general public.
  • Adressing collective challenges in a constructive way.
  • Growing  industry and respective recycling initiatives and businesses  in volume, technology and profitability.
  • Presenting a united voice that influences external decision- making positively.
  • Continuing to have a positive impact on the environment to preserve and protect resources.

Recyclable plastics scrap can be sourced from factory waste that cannot be used in the original products, post-industrial- or post-consumer sources. Interesting facts about plastics recycling in South Africa:

 

  • In 2016, 1.144 million tons of post-consumer plastic waste ended up in official waste streams.
  • South Africa Mechanically recycled 309 520 tons of plastics in 2016
  • Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60 watt bulb for up to six hours
  • Recycling one kg of polyethylene saves approximately 2 litres of crude oil and 1½ kg of CO2.
  • Although in 2016 41.8% plastics were recovered 0.667 million tons still went to landfill.
  • The average person generates 2,04 kg of rubbish every day – about ¾ tons of solid waste per year

 

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