The topic of plastic waste is usually discussed from the perspective of industrialized countries, which also produce and consume most plastics. But plastic waste is also a problem in the global south, to which solutions must urgently be found. There is already a preliminary approach.
Globally, only about nine percent of plastics produced and consumed are recycled. Twelve percent is burned to produce energy, and the significant remainder (79 percent) ends up in landfills or the environment. This is also due to the fact that many countries in the Northern Hemisphere export large amounts of their mostly unclean and unsorted plastic waste to countries in the Southern Hemisphere – where there is no significant recycling infrastructure. Meanwhile, the added value generated by the production and processing of plastics takes place mainly in the northern hemisphere. So there is a clear disparity in the principle of polluter pays and beneficiary. Plastic waste itself – whether domestic or imported – poses other challenges to the Global South.
The fact that they end up en masse in rivers and ditches is not just an aesthetic problem. “It also negatively impacts various sectors of the economy, such as fisheries and aquaculture, energy production and shipping,” Judge Kofi Debra said in a webinar on the opportunities and limits of the plastic emissions budget. The Ghanaian works at Fernando Pessoa University in Porto on the topics of waste management as well as ecology and environmental health. He also noted that rotting, unclean plastic waste is also a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and poses a public health risk.
The problems of plastic waste are also manifested in Ghana: the country itself produces 1 million tons per year, 2.58 million tons are imported. About five percent of the country’s old plastics are currently recycled. But more and more initiatives are using plastic waste for new products, Ghanaian ecologist Godfried Kwesi Tai of Huhai University in China reports: Clean and shredded plastic waste is processed at the curb, for example. This special type of paving is made of 70 percent shredded plastic and 30 percent sand, which makes it permeable to water — and an ideal ground cover for areas where flooding occurs frequently. Consumer products such as toys and bags are also made from recycled plastic.
These methods are not only useful for reducing plastic waste. “People who collect plastic waste get paid for it, so there are more jobs,” Godfried Kwesi Tai emphasized. This also strengthens people’s social cohesion and environmental awareness. However, these are unskilled jobs that do not achieve any long-term structural improvement. According to the scientist, in order to make progress here and to further improve the use of plastic in general, more political work is urgently needed, such as creating an efficient infrastructure to make plastic recyclable. The Global North is also responsible for financing this development.
However, recycling can be a partial solution to reducing plastic waste. The use of plastic as a whole should also be significantly reduced. Jürgen Bertling of the Fraunhofer Institute UMSICHT presented an interesting approach to this during the webinar: the plastic budget. The PlastikBudget project has developed two tools to determine the acceptable level of plastic consumption: the plastic pollution equivalent (PPE), which measures the impact of plastic, and the plastic pollution budget (PPB), which is calculated based on personal protective equipment. PPB can be used to set maximum plastic emission levels for individuals, sectors or countries. Researchers defined personal protective equipment as the sum of all emissions from a product, process or service entering a given environmental section, such as soil or air, multiplied by the time of their residence.
So far, Jürgen Bertling said, much has been based on estimates, and more data is needed to make a meaningful calculation. For example, when it comes to garbage disposal: it is unclear how much loose plastic waste is not collected and ends up in the environment. According to the concept of personal protective equipment, for example, driving a car may be especially harmful (PPE 16.5 kg), as well as drinking coffee from ready-made cups (PPE 13.5 kg). PPB, in turn, depends on the goal of having an acceptable amount of plastic in the environment. The rationale is: We can’t really take out the plastic that’s already in the environment, so we need to reduce the amount of plastic added. The researchers calculated a plastic budget of 32 kg of PPE per capita worldwide. This corresponds – see above – to the use of a car and ten disposable coffee cups. A significant reduction in our use of plastic is necessary: “This can only be done through a combination of strategies: using less plastic and more biodegradable plastics,” said Jürgen Bertling. However, its share nowadays is less than one percent, which is why more and better biodegradable plastics must be developed and used more sensibly.
Of course, how plastics are generally perceived also plays a role in these strategies and what this means for a reasonable regulatory approach to the plastic problem. These questions were asked by Dr. Stefan Schweiger of the ForTraNN Institute at the Technical University of Ingolstadt and the AG Association and Sustainability in Transformation at Ruhr University Bochum. First take a look at the history of plastics from a “great accelerator substance” after World War II to a “problematic substance” today. Today, the toxicity and persistence of plastics in the environment have not been sufficiently researched, but this “not yet known” is not a reason to be neglected. Many people do not view the topic as something directly related to their lives: “It seems that the oceans and the plastic waste that floats in them is far away. “We must bring the problem back to the people, and create awareness that it starts right at their doorstep,” advised Stefan Schweiger at the webinar. .
This ranges from microplastic emissions from tire wear when driving or shoe wear when hiking, to the distribution of plastic particles when trimming a lawn at home or when using a tile eraser, to heart-shaped balloons that go up at weddings. Here, determining an individual’s budget for plastic emissions as well as national budgets can be helpful. According to Stefan Schweiger, the corresponding concept must be designed in such a way that citizens can manage it. However, Jürgen Bertling was convinced “that in the future we will not be able to do without a more comprehensive accounting of our lifestyle and consumer behaviour”. In addition to comparing revenues and expenses, this includes at least roughly knowing the greenhouse gases generated, your water consumption as well as responsible plastic emissions and comparing them against corresponding budgets.
Developing our financial view of consumer behavior accordingly is undoubtedly a formidable cultural challenge. However, if we do not overcome it, sustainable development is difficult to achieve.
Photo by Ariungoo Batzorig on Unsplash