Plastic, once just a disposable convenience, has been transformed into one of the most critical environmental concerns on the planet. In a short space of time, it has made its way to every corner of the globe. However, unlike the waste products of the past, like fabric, wood or food, plastic cannot be degraded only eroded into smaller and smaller pieces. These 'microplastics' are everywhere, from your cells to plankton in the ocean; they've even been discovered in the deep Mariana Trench.
But it does not have to be this way...
Collectively, we must find a way to reduce the volume of plastic waste, not only through the efficient use of resources but also by developing innovative methods to upcycle and reuse waste materials. We must rethink our view of garbage, not as material to be dumped or incinerated, but as a potential source of resources. Nature doesn’t discard or litter, every waste product is broken down and repurposed.
By finding a sustainable method to reuse plastics and waste products, as well as rethinking our plastic waste management infrastructure, we can help create a circular economy. In doing so, we can access a vast source of resources, while remedying the environmental devastation caused by plastic and waste worldwide.
Production of Plastic Waste
First things first, we must understand the scale of the problem. Despite plastic becoming increasingly common since WWII, over half of all plastics ever manufactured were made in the last fifteen years. Forty percent of that production was single-use plastics, which have an extreme likelihood of being discarded, leading to ecosystem damage.
Although plastics are used worldwide, one study found that ninety percent of ocean plastic came from just ten rivers, eight of which are in Asia. The other two are in Africa. In Southeast Asia, only nine percent of plastic is recycled, with seventy-nine percent finding its way to landfills. From there, it enters the rivers and ecosystems – the rest is incinerated.
Even with this in mind, the production of plastics doesn't show any signs of stopping completely. From 1950 to 2015, production exploded from 2.3 million tons to 448 million tons. By 2050, production is expected to double again. Therefore, we need ways to repurpose that which nature can't degrade.
Mismanagement of Waste in Asia
Asia has become the world's dumping ground. Seventy-five percent of globally exported waste ends up on the continent. Overwhelmed nations in Southeast Asia are refusing improperly labelled waste, with both Malaysia and the Philippines sending back waste to Spain and South Korea. But already waste is often dumped. At least twenty-seven percent of Thailand's plastic waste in 2018 was improperly disposed of, including via open dumping. Much of the rest is left in open dumpsites to fester.
However, with the world’s largest population, China produces the largest volume of plastic waste globally, with an annual total of nearly 60 million tonnes. Yet, despite having the highest share of global mismanaged plastic at around twenty-eight percent, the nation has also invested heavily in recycling and reusing waste.
The Chinese waste management market is reinventing how we use waste as a valuable resource. It is expected to grow at over seven percent a year until 2024. Already China's private waste collectors are sending tons of domestic household waste back to manufacturers. In 2015, around sixty-five percent of all industrial waste in the country was reused, with the Chinese authorities aiming to increase the recycling rate to seventy-nine percent by 2025, under their 'Made in China 2025' goal. As such, China remains the forerunner in the creation of a circular materials economy, with both Europe and North America taking note. Utilizing their infrastructure and one day sharing these new advances in business models and technological innovations will be the stepping stone to creating a more circular economy around the world.