Across the world today, plastic pollution is perhaps the single most debated topic. Often singled out as the biggest threat to our environment in modern times, the material itself has become the subject of wide spread criticism, stringent regulations and bans.
In May this year, the European Commission proposed a ban on a list of single-use plastic products and their substitution with other more ‘sustainable’ alternatives. In the West, and even in the UAE, some big brands and retailers have been swift to ban plastic straws, coffee stirrers and single-use plastic bags in a series of moves aimed at combating marine litter and addressing plastic pollution.
It is important to note that what we are seeing as a response by the global community to this growing environmental crisis is largely based on emotions and is hardly backed by scientific research. We often hear calls to ban plastics but let us first consider the environmental implications of replacing it with other alternatives.
A recent study by Trucost found that using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less harmful to the environment than it would be if plastics were replaced with alternative materials, such as paper and glass. Incidentally, the manufacturing and recycling of these alternative materials is far more energy and water intensive compared to that of plastics.
The study further warns that replacing plastics with alternatives would increase environmental costs from $139bn, based on figures from 2015, to $533bn annually. Worse yet, it would grow the global warming potential by 130%, energy use by 80%, and waste generation by 55mn tonnes. The study also estimates that in the Middle East and Africa region, the environmental cost of moving from plastics to alternative materials will jump from $6 per tonne to $34 per tonne. This would have a significant negative environmental impact, including on several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals especially SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and SDG 13 (Climate Action).
Lack of waste management infrastructure
Plastic marine litter is a global challenge comprised of complex factors, chief amongst which is the mismanagement of plastic waste due to lack of adequate land-based infrastructure in the emerging economies. As much as three-fourths of land-sourced ocean plastic waste come from uncollected waste from land, with the remaining originating from gaps in the collection system itself.
Among the top contributors of plastic marine litter globally are some of Asia’s fastest growing economies such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and China, which accounted for a combined 16.7mn metric tonnes of mismanaged plastics in 2010.
China has recently put a ban on imports of 22 types of lower-grade waste, including plastic waste, creating a real urgency to develop domestic recycling and waste management infrastructure in countries that largely depend on exporting their excess waste to China. With Asia’s largest economy accounting for about two-thirds of global plastic waste imports in 2016, this has created an urgent situation for these countries, in particular the GCC, which exports a significant amount of its waste to China.
The establishment of a robust recycling and waste management industry in the Arabian Gulf could yield significant benefits for the region, including added value to the local economy, job creation, and achieving the sustainability targets listed in the various national visions by regional governments.
According to some statistics, as many as 10 new jobs can be added to the region for each tonne of plastic waste generated, summing up recycling, collection, sorting, and transportation, while recycling just one kilogram of plastic waste could save 1.4kg of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere. Saudi Arabia is already taking steps in this direction with the establishment of a recycling sector company via its Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Plastic energy recovery
Beyond recycling, to truly transition into a more sustainable economic model, the Arabian Gulf region must embrace the circular economy concept, which is grounded on the principle of maximising the value and utility of materials over their lifecycle and keeping them inside the value chain for as long as possible, thus minimising energy and resource consumption.
Thanks to its flexibility, as a material, plastics can play a key role in enabling the circular economy. With current technology, as much as 50% of post-use plastics can be reused and recovered for their energy through chemical recycling, with additional 40% being brought back into the cycle through mechanical recycling.
Nevertheless, a greater focus will be needed on creating aftermarkets, treatment options, or both, for collected waste. Only through the full implementation of waste management systems can leakage of plastic into the ocean be prevented. Developing even more efficient plastic packaging, increasing recycling and the conversion of plastic waste to energy can help further curb ocean litter and preserve valuable resources. According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), recycling HDPE and PET plastics can save enough energy each year to power 750,000 homes.
Germany is one positive example to the world as it boasts one of the highest recycling rates globally and saves about $4.34bn annually due to recycling and waste to energy conversion. Investing in research and development can pay huge dividends to the regional economy, while also enhancing its leadership role in environmental care and global innovation indices.
The way forward
We live in a world that faces a constant influx of challenges, from rapidly growing populations, to a fast expanding middle class, urbanisation, climate change and technological disruptions. These trends are significantly impacting our daily lives, changing the ways we access key necessities such as water, food, housing and transportation, putting a growing amount of pressure on basic services and goods, with the healthcare sector, especially in countries with aging populations, increasingly feeling the strain.
Modern healthcare advancements would not be possible without the use of plastic materials that have for decades played a key role in providing essential medical supplies, helping to improve the health of millions of people and saving lives around the world. As it stands, today’s most innovative medical procedures depend on plastic innovations. How much of this can we replace with better alternatives? The answer is ‘probably none’!
However, as the debate on sustainability continues, some NGOs and brand owners are promoting alternatives that they feel are more environmentally friendly, in the process only replacing single-use plastics with other single-use materials. This is not helping to reduce waste, but only changing its composition.
In a time of rapid innovation and growing societal challenges, we need to develop sustainable solutions using solid scientific research and facts. The only way forward is to innovate and collaborate to address all global challenges that we, as a society, face today.
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