We look at zero waste as more than just what does or does not go into the landfill. In order to understand the full environmental impact of waste, we have to look at the pollution created at every step of the lifecycle of products and materials, starting from when we extract resources from the ground, and moving through production, transport, and consumption.
There’s no better example of that then plastic and its role in climate change.
We know that plastic waste is a series problem. Globally, only about 15-20% of plastics are recycled annually. Throughout the history of plastic production, plastic-based products have been made to be used briefly and then turned into waste. From 1950 to 2015 just 9% of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced was ever recycled.
Yet, even as we become more aware of the crisis many of us struggle to comprehend the enormity of plastic waste. And the problem is getting worse, not better. If we know plastic waste is a major threat to our health, our environment, and our future, shouldn’t we be working together to reduce the amount of non-recyclable plastics we produce?
We need better recycling policies and we need companies to focus on making more durable and recyclable products in order to solve this crisis.
Plastic Waste Generated and Recycled in the U.S., 1960 to 2017
Since 1960, the amount of plastic waste generated has far exceeded our recycling efforts (see above graph). According to the EPA, in 2017 plastics accounted for 13.2% of all U.S. municipal solid waste generated—a staggering 35.4 million tons of waste. Only about 3 million tons of that (8.4%) was recycled. The rest was landfilled or incinerated.
And that doesn’t account all of the plastic that ends up in our environment–about 8 million tons per year globally.
Plastic and Climate Change
How we dispose of and use plastic products is only part of the bigger picture. In order to implement long-term solutions to plastic waste, we will have to stop manufacturing vast quantities of plastic products that are designed to end up in landfills and our environment after minimal use.
However, right now plastic manufacturing is expanding at alarming rates. Since 1950, global plastic production has increased to around 380 million tons per year. That amount is expected to quadruple to over 1.5 billion tons by 2050 based on current estimates.
99% of all plastics are derived from fossil fuels, and plastics manufacturing generates significant emissions that contribute to climate change. If the above growth projections for plastic production become reality, then by 2050 plastics will have used up 15% of our remaining carbon budget to keep global warming below 1.5°C.
Yearly Plastic Resin and Fiber Production, 1950 to 2050 (Projected, in metric tons)
The availability of cheap crude oil and natural gas from fracking in Texas’s Permian Basin and other locations is playing a central role in increasing plastic production. Lacking sufficient markets for both commodities, the oil and gas industry is looking to turn the overabundance of fossil fuels into plastic materials..
So long as we manufacture plastic products and packaging at an alarming rate, we’ll continue to feed the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. We must break that habit by significantly reducing the production of non-recyclable plastics.
To do that we are working to ensure that producers are made responsible for the waste they generate and that they manufacture goods, especially plastics, in a sustainable manner.
Businesses can take the initiative in reducing plastic waste by eliminating single-use plastics from their offices and store shelves and by redesigning products to be durable, reusable, and recyclable. Indeed, plastic waste represents a huge loss of economic value. The World Economic Forum estimates that about $80-120 billion in plastic packaging materials alone is lost after a single use.