With the exponential spread of disposable plastics, came carbon footprints, health consequences and marine pollution. While the planet produced only a few million tonnes of plastic in 1950, this figure could reach the highly symbolic half-billion mark in the years to come.
Marine pollution and climate change, triggered by single-use plastics
Between 80 and 85% of the litter identified in the marine environment today is made of plastic – figures that led the media to comment that there is a sixth continent made of plastic litter, sitting at the heart of the North Pacific.
Plastics also bring with them the less visible, but equally worrying, threat of climate change. Produced from oil, natural gas, and coal – three fossil fuels whose use mankind is attempting to limit – plastics are powerful emitters of greenhouse gases and, as such, actively contribute to global warming. To provide some measure of scale, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that, in 2016, plastics production were responsible for 2 billion tonnes of emitted CO2.
Plastics recycling rate is very low
Another reason for the widespread hostility towards plastics: their recycling rate is extremely low. If nothing is done, plastic waste will continue to pile up inexorably until the fossil fuels used to produce it are exhausted. OPECST, which has been conducting research into the lifecycles of plastics produced, claims only 9% of the plastic waste generated between 1950 and 2015 has been recycled.
By contrast, 79% of the overall amount of plastic produced has wound up in landfills or released into the environment, 12% has been incinerated, and the remainder is still in use.
The European Commission is showing a level of initiative in this area, insisting that “by 2030, all plastic packaging placed on the EU market (must) be reused or easily recycled”. That objective has notably been integrated into the circular economy action plan promoted by the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, France’s Thierry Breton.
Reusable alternatives to plastic packaging
The landmark Single-Use Plastics Directive adopted on June 12th, 2019, speaks to the EU’s policy commitments on environmental matters.
Nevertheless, meeting the needs of consumers, businesses, or restaurateurs, all while meeting the EU’s climate targets, is a complex balance to strike. And yet some of the alternative packaging options, such as natural fiber packaging, seem to be acquitting themselves quite admirably. This type of packaging will always have a smaller carbon footprint than reusable plastic tableware.
As EPPA explains, “reusables can carry significant environmental costs which are often forgotten, and that single-use food packaging is preferable for the environment, public health, and the achievement of EU Green Deal goals”.