Plastic pollution: what progress has been made?

Written by Seb Beloe on 12th Jul 2023

It is now nearly six years since Sir David Attenborough and the BBC debuted Blue Planet 2. The series was the catalyst for a worldwide campaign to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering natural ecosystems and particularly the world’s oceans.

With a Blue Planet 3 series now in the offing, how much progress has been made in reducing plastic pollution?

While it was the footage of plastic bag and sanitary product-clogged seas that fired public action on plastic pollution, the science that followed the series has been, if anything, even more horrifying. Plastic waste, often in the form of micro-plastics, has been found in every corner of the globe from the deepest marine trenches to Arctic sea-ice.

From sepsis to sperm counts

Plastic pollution has direct negative impacts on nature as well as on human health. Microplastics can be particularly insidious, penetrating deep into biological organisms and disrupting core biological processes such as reproduction and growth as well as causing damage to internal organs. Research has suggested that humans may be consuming as much as 300 microplastic fragments per day. The science is not yet conclusive on the damage this does, but there are major concerns that microplastics and the chemicals they contain may be impacting on everything from an increased incidence of sepsis to reductions in sperm counts.

Top 10 countries doing the most to tackle plastic pollution

Action to reduce plastic waste

Public and scientific concern has resulted in dramatic action from many regulators and businesses. Readers can’t fail to have noticed the removal of plastic straws. Over 170 countries have made pledges to significantly reduce the use of plastics by 2030. 70 per cent of 23,209 people surveyed across 34 countries in 2022 support stricter global rules to eliminate plastic pollution.

In June this year, more than 165 nations agreed to publish, before the end of 2023, a global treaty to end plastic pollution. The treaty is expected to include bans and control measures to reduce and eliminate the production and consumption of plastic products and materials.  These measures have been complemented by countless initiatives at corporate and community level to replace, reuse or recycle plastics.

Plastics industry carries on regardless

These moves are on a collision course with the plans and expectations of the petrochemical industry. 70 per cent of petrochemical feedstock oil is used to produce plastics. Forecasts from BP and from the International Energy Agency (IEA) have typically seen petrochemicals as the largest driver of future expected oil demand. The IEA see this lead stretching in its recent scenarios. According to analysis from Carbon Tracker, the petrochemical industry is planning for 4 per cent annual capacity growth in petrochemicals, backed by US$400 billion (£310 billion) of investment.

What can be done?

At WHEB, we believe efforts to reduce the amount of plastic being used in short-lived single-use applications such as packaging will continue. This will be driven by clearer evidence of the damage plastic pollution – and particularly microplastics – do to human and environmental health.  We see several dimensions to policy action and consequent opportunities for companies providing solutions to this problem.

Substitution of plastics with more sustainable materials: Wherever possible and particularly in short-lived applications like packaging, the focus has been on finding alternative materials. We have backed the wider use of recycled cardboard as an alternative to plastic in packaging applications. Highly recyclable – and widely recycled – cardboard is a lightweight, biodegradable material that can substitute for a wide range of packaging applications. Smurfit Kappa is our principal investment in recycled cardboard which has developed cardboard alternatives to plastic in everything from packaging for cans to clothing. We are also pushing portfolio businesses that use plastic packaging to find alternatives. HelloFresh, for example, has reduced plastic packaging per meal by 34 per cent since 2020.

Creating markets for recycled plastic: Alongside reducing plastic packaging, we also see opportunities to create lucrative markets in recycled plastic. Several WHEB portfolio companies including Advanced Drainage Systems (ADS) have tapped into the glut of plastic packaging waste as a valuable raw material. ADS is the US’s largest plastic recycler, accounting for 28 per cent of all recycled HDPE and turning it into long-lived stormwater sewers and other water treatment and management products.

Developing recycling infrastructure to support radically higher reuse and recycling rates: Finally, almost half of the world’s population lives in areas where plastic waste generation exceeds the capacity to manage it. Tomra is the market leader in supplying recycling equipment to enable radically higher rates of recycling. The company supplies reverse-vending machines as well as sorting equipment that is used in municipal recycling centres.

Progress has clearly been made in tackling plastic waste over the past six years. The scale of the problem though remains daunting. We very much hope that should Sir David Attenborough be able to present the third Blue Planet series, he will be able to report on real progress in tackling this most pernicious of environmental threats.

5 easy steps to living plastic-free

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