The leakage of plastics into our environment has become a flood since the 1970s. Presence of plastic waste has reached intolerable levels and yet the production of plastics continues to increase. However, plastics make our current standard of living possible in many respects. But only a small fraction of plastic waste is recycled. Rich, industrialzed countries with educated populations have all the means to stop exporting waste and manage the flood. Here, stricter regulations and standards as well as their strict enforcement are a matter of adequate policies and political will.
Plastics and Waste Management
Developing and emerging countries mostly have inadequate waste management systems, since they are costly and communities face very many competing challenges. Short-lived plastic products are thus usually disposed of directly into the environment. Sustainably financed waste management systems are the exception. Increasing environmental awareness, a design of systems with adequate technologies, their financing and the sustainable operation of waste management systems are often the last priority for local authorities. Which is understandable, but not reasonable.
The solutions are known and proven. Nevertheless, new concepts, such as extended producer responsibility, deposit schemes and other measures must be implemented. However, first the political will must exist and wide-spread corruption in the waste sector eliminated.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is todays leading institution on the circular economy and offers a wealth of information, teaching materials and best practice examples. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an association of internationally active companies such as BASF, Borealis or TOMRA, is implementing its first unique projects such as the STOP project in Indonesia.
In Germany, the Prevent Waste Alliance is developing first initiatives together with companies and civil society to support the change in waste manegement in developing countries. But without structural changes and a change of attitudes of all stakeholders, the goals will hardly be achievable. The elimination of environmental pollution with plastic is a global problem whose solution will cost billions of euros and thus represents good business opportunities.
Appropriate analyses of waste flows, awareness raising among citizens, entrepreneurs and politicians, the design of adequate systems for different income and settlement structures, the training of engineers, technicians, municipal employees and staff of legislative and regulatory institutions must be established or intensified in many countries.
Plastics in long-lived consumer goods
Increasingly car manufacturers are being questioned about their product responsibility since more and more cars end up in African and other developing countries at the end of their third or fourth “life”. Whilst metal parts are valuable and often recycled, the question remains what to do with the ever increasing amount of plastic parts in body, interior and engine compartment of passenger cars and trucks.
Solutions for a proper recycling of automobiles are urgenly required. Japanese, Korean as well as European manufacturers must take responsibility for a design of their products to make the plastic components easily recyclable.