Plastic Waste, Plastic Bags, and their Impact on Business.
An Intro to Business-relevant Plastic Waste Statistics-
Plastic pollution found in our environments commonly referred to as plastic leakage, is not a new problem. There are volumes of academic research published on plastic waste, specifically concerning how much ends up in our oceans. Still, much of what was published before the early 2000s was not often made mainstream information. Awareness remained mostly limited to scientific communities until 1997 when Captain James Moore discovered what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. North of the Hawaiian Islands stretches thousands of miles of plastic garbage. This alone is cause for alarm; however, this is not the only case of this occurrence, just the largest. There are two of these gyres in the Pacific Ocean, two in the Indian Ocean, and one in the Atlantic.
In 2020, roughly 12 million metric tons of plastic leaked into the ocean along with each year progressively more plastic leaking as economic growth funds additional plastic production. By 2040 if action is not taken, it is estimated that the annual plastic leakage into our oceans will reach 29 million metric tons of plastic waste per year, putting the amount of plastic in our oceans at almost 450 million metric tons. On top of this, hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in virgin and existing plastic production plants pushing us deeper into the problem.
Many factors go into tackling the challenge of reversing the course of how we deal with plastic waste. Overall waste management, recycling infrastructure, government restrictions and incentives, and cost-effective alternatives are just some of the individual paths to reducing plastic waste in our environments. It's estimated that 71 million metric tons of what we use now can be replaced by paper, coated-paper, or new compostable materials. This leaves room for businesses to capitalize on the immerging technologies to sustain forests while reducing plastic production and increasing innovative technologies.
Global awareness of the condition of our global environment has a massive impact on businesses. In the event of public backlash, businesses and governments could see supply chain disruption, heavily reduced demand for popular products that are plastic intensive, and brand damage from association with plastic pollutions. Upper-middle-income countries and the businesses based within them can make the most impactful changes by taking the initiative to reduce and substitute plastic wherever possible, resulting in up to a 30 percent reduction in plastic consumption by 2040.
Most of the growth to be capitalized here is two-fold. Business opportunity lies heavily in developing alternative materials and systems that meet the plastics' requirements they would be replacing. More countries decide to ban plastic every year, which has paved the way for new business opportunities that could replace plastic, which is now a 568.9-billion-dollar industry. The opportunity is just as high as alternative solutions become increasingly required by law.
Countries with lower middle income must deal with significantly lower waste disposal infrastructure and find the most productive solution to reduce the amount of waste flowing into the system and, whenever possible, promote plastic substitutes. Today, almost 2 billion people globally don’t have access to waste collection services and should address these concerns before putting attention on reduction and substitution methods.
Plastic Bag Specific Waste Information-
Of the roughly 12 million metric tons of plastic that leak into the oceans yearly, about 5 million of that or about 46 percent of this plastic waste comprises plastic films, wraps, and bags. In 2020 alone, almost four and a half trillion plastic bags have been produced.
In just the United States, approximately 380 billion plastic bags are used yearly, or around 1,200 bags per resident. Of these, 100 billion of these bags are just plastic shopping bags.
Plastic bags can take up to 300 years to break down. However, even when they break down, they have not biodegraded, just broken down into smaller toxic pieces. While it might not seem like something a person has to worry about too much, it's essential to consider that many animals who consume these plastic particles store toxic chemical particles in their bodies until larger predators consume them. The chain of animals full of chemical toxicity that consumes one another eventually becomes a part of our food.
Most plastic bags are made of polyethylene, which is the most used plastic today. Polyethylene production uses around 12 million barrels of oil to produce the bags used in the United States. Globally, polyethylene production uses about 8% of our global oil use annually.
Plastic Bags and Government Policy-
One of the most significant factors for combating plastic bag pollution is government intervention and policy on environmental issues. The responsibility could lie with companies ranging from manufacturers and distributors to business to consumers interactions like supermarkets and grocery stores. The problem with the approach is that given the rate of plastic production and its value, there is no real sign that companies will decide to find solutions rather than enjoy the profits from using cheaper packaging material.
For this reason, Germany and Denmark became early adopters of the first plastic bag bans in most retail stores in 1991 and 1994. When European interventions tend to be more widespread, some countries impose fees per bag to companies. As time and awareness have revealed the importance of stemming plastic bag waste leakage, some countries have tried passing the cost onto customers per bag or tax those who sell them.
While the way government bodies have decided to handle plastic waste has not been entirely uniform, most countries have some plastic bags regulations. Since 2002 countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe have increasingly introduced bans and levies on plastic bag consumption.
One point of concern from a world view is the position that the United States takes on anything. Surprisingly only four states have put any ban or levies on plastic bags, leaving the US severely lacking in interventions compared to Europe or even some Asian countries.
Solutions and Recommendations-
To combat plastic waste, there have been publications from respected environmentalist groups, governments, and non-profits on how to best reverse the course of plastic waste so that projections, as they are, will not come to pass.
Plastic bags specifically have seen the most attempts to slow plastic pollution as they tend to be the easiest to find in our environment where they shouldn't be.
The system is most expected to reverse our entire plastic pollution situation, including plastic bags follows. It should be noted that plastic leakage is likely to grow unless the system's portions are observed. If just one or two of the changes are implemented, plastic pollution will outpace all efforts:
- Reduce & Substitute- Reducing includes plastics production items with reusable items such as personal water containers and grocery totes. Substitution of plastics with sustainable alternatives such as home compostable plastics bags made from vegetable resins other renewable sources. Reduction and substitution are expected to eliminate 47 percent of the plastic leakage globally by 2040 if the other systems are practiced.
- Recycling- Recycling is not a new concept. The problem is that for every plastic bag produced, only 1-3% of them will be recycled. For all plastics, only 10% of the plastic made ever has been recycled. The rest has been burned, put in landfills and dumps, or found its way into our oceans and natural environments. Recycling infrastructure is one of the largest issues here, as many countries have no recycling infrastructure. Even middle-high income range countries often dont have the capabilities necessary to handle the sorting and volume of the amount of plastic waste produced annually. With recycling, infrastructure, and efficiency improved, it's expected that action could reduce up to 20% of plastic leakage.
- Collection and Disposal- Over 2 Billion people globally currently dont have access to any waste collection service, plastic or not. With numbers like this, the glaring solution for middle and lower-income countries are to establish waste collection services and networks so that the rest of the systems mentioned above can be implemented effectively. Higher-income countries can absorb the cost of increasing waste management infrastructure. For middle and lower-income nations, the change required here would require a tremendous amount of resources from both government and industry. With global efforts, earnestly striving to solve this issue in conjunction with the other solutions, proper collection and disposal of waste disposal could reduce 33% of plastic pollution.