The world is waking up to a crisis of ocean plastic—and we’re tracking the developments and solutions as they happen.
THE WORLD HAS a plastic pollution problem and it’s snowballing—but so is public awareness and action.
Each year, an estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the world’s ocean from coastal regions. That’s about 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’s no room for real food.
New research is emerging apace about the possible long-term impacts of tiny pieces of plastic on the marine food chain—raising fresh questions about how it might ultimately impact human health and food security.
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, though many countries and businesses are trying innovative solutions to increase that number.
National Geographic magazine devoted a special cover package to plastic in June 2018, and since then, the issue has received more attention from the media, public, and politicians the world over. Here, we track some of the developments around this important issue. We will update this article periodically as news develops.
PERU RESTRICTS SINGLE-USE PLASTIC
January 17, 2019
Visitors will no longer be allowed to carry in single-use plastics into Peru’s 76 natural and cultural protected areas, from Machu Picchu to Manu to Huascarán, or national museums. This ban is now going into affect and was announced as a Supreme Decree by Peru’s Environment Minister, Fabiola Muñoz, and signed by President Martín Vizcarra, back in November.
The decree says the goal is replacing single-use plastics with “reusable, biodegradable plastic or others whose degradation does not generate contamination by micro-plastics or dangerous substances.”
At world-famous Machu Picchu, tourists produce an average of 14 tons of solid waste per day, much of it plastic bottles and other single-use packaging.
In December, Peru’s Congress had also passed a law to phase out single-use plastic bags across the country over the next three years. According to Peru’s Environment Ministry, the country uses 947,000 tons of plastic each year, while 75 percent is thrown out and only 0.3 percent is recycled.
SAN DIEGO BANS STYROFOAM FOOD AND DRINK CONTAINERS
January 11, 2019
San Diego has joined a growing number of cities to ban containers made of polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam—the Dow Chemical trademark name for extruded polystyrene. The ban includes food and drink containers, egg cartons, ice chest coolers, aquatic toys for swimming pools, and mooring buoys and navigation markers. The ocean-side city is the largest in California to ban polystyrene.
Polystyrene’s popularity as a container stems from its low cost, strength, insulation, and feather-weight buoyancy. Those properties also made it a scourge of plastic waste because it easily breaks into tiny, often airborne particles that are difficult to clean up and is generally rejected by recycling centers as too much trouble to recyclable.
The San Diego City Council voted 6-to-3 on January 8 to approve the ban, despite objections from owners of small restaurants who complained that the costs of using environmentally degradable containers, such as cardboard or compostable paper, could be double. The council first approved the ban last October for a trial period. This week’s vote made the ban permanent.
D.C. PLASTIC STRAW BAN BEGINS
January 1, 2019
One New Year’s resolution, to use less plastic, is no longer optional for restaurants and other service businesses in Washington, D.C., as of January 1. By July, businesses in the district will begin receiving fines if they continue to offer plastic straws.
A number of local businesses have already started switching to reusable, washable straws or disposable ones made from paper or hay.
The law follows Seattle’s ban earlier in 2018 and aims to reduce the impact of plastic straws as litter. More than 4,000 of the disposed items were found in a recent cleanup of the Anacostia River in D.C. Straws are known to hurt wildlife and are difficult to recycle, often ending up as litter. They make up only a tiny fraction of the total marine plastic pollution problem, leading some critics to say they are a distraction, while others say they are an easy place to start.
(Learn about the travel industry’s war on straws and where plastic straws came from in the first place.)
250 GROUPS LAUNCH MASSIVE GLOBAL PLASTIC PARTNERSHIP
October 29, 2018
Two hundred and fifty organizations responsible for 20 percent of the plastic packaging produced around the world have committed to reducing waste and pollution.
The initiative is called the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, and it includes a diverse group of members including the city of Austin, clothing company H&M, Unilever, PespsiCo, L’Oreal, Nestle, and Coca-Cola.
The Global Commitment touts a number of high-profile partnerships. It’s a collaboration with the United Nations and is being led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Other partners include the World Wide Fund for Nature, the World Economic Forum, the Consumer Goods Forum, and 40 academic institutions.
Ultimately, it’s working to promote a circular economy for plastic, a concept that entails reusing or repurposing plastic instead of letting it sit in a landfill. The shift would require building or improving collection and processing facilities, and five venture capital firms have pledged $200 million toward the initiative.
Recycling used items into new products is one of the three targets set by the commitment. Corporations joining the commitment must also phase out single-use plastic packaging and ensure it can either be reused, recycled, or composted by 2025.
“While elements of the EMF Global Commitment are moving in the right direction, the problem is that companies are given the flexibility to continue prioritizing recycling over reduction and reuse,” said Ahmad Ashov from Greenpeace Indonesia in a press release. “Corporations are not required to set actual targets to reduce the total amount of single-use plastics they are churning out.”
Every 18 months, the targets will be reviewed, and participating businesses must publish data on their progress each year.
Governments that join the commitment are pledging to create policies that help support a circular economy.