By: Jed Alegado

Since industrial-scale production of plastics began in the 1950s, the world has produced 8.3 billion tonnes of the fossil fuels-based substance, according to a 2017 study by Science Advances, an open-source journal published by the Science family of publications. Of that, 6.3 billion has turned into plastic waste, according to the study.

That 8.3 billion tonnes is the equivalent of 18,400 copies of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, or 56,000 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, or 55 million jumbo jets, the study says. Of all that waste, only 9 percent has been recycled and 12 percent has been incinerated. The rest is either in landfills or the environment, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating debris patch of microplastics estimated to be the size of the state of Texas in the United States. That is just one of several huge vortexes  in the world’s oceans that swirl floating plastics together into a concentrated stew. A recent United Nations study gained wide attention with the statement that there will be more plastics in the world’s oceans by 2050 than fish.

Earlier this month, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or Gaia, a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, NGOs and individuals in 90-plus countries met in Bandung, Indonesia, to attempt to figure out what to do with all that waste without burning it, putting it in landfills or other “end-of-pipe interventions.”

 Their solution is to make the companies producing the plastic and earning money from their products take on the responsibility for the pollution. As critics have pointed out, globally fossil fuel companies received subsidies of US$5.3 trillion worldwide in 2015. But the cost of cleaning up plastic waste is borne by the taxpayers. 

“It’s unfair for companies who earn billions of dollars annually to pass the burden and responsibility of managing the waste that their products create when cities and communities with limited resources are burdened by it,” said Froilan Grate, GAIA’s regional coordinator. ‘“Cities are already struggling to fund waste collection systems, and they are still left to address waste that communities can neither compost nor recycle,” he added.

The problem suddenly got more acute last July, after the Chinese government notified the World Trade Organization that as of Jan. 1, it would ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste including plastic, textiles and mixed paper. In 2017, Chinese manufacturers imported 7.3 million tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan.  Almost immediately, western recyclers started to feel the effects. In one week in early February, the mid-size California municipality of Sacramento dumped 290 tonnes of recyclables into landfills. That presumably is happening across the industry.

Among the top 10 producers are Dow Chemical, with global sales of US$49 billion; Lyondell Basell,US$33 billion; Exxon Mobil,US$236 billion; SABIC,US$35.4 billion; INEOS,US$40 billion; BASF,US$63.7 billion; ENI,US$61.6 billion, and LG Chemical, US$23.3 billion. They manufacture in dozens of countries. Dow Chemical, for instance, employs 57,000 people in 160 countries, LyondellBasel employs 13,000 at 55 manufacturing sites across the world with sales in more than 100 countries.

Holding the multinational manufacturers’ feet to the fire at the moment seems problematical. Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, recently cited recent sustainability discussions from big companies such as Unilever and Coca-Cola as a sign that momentum is building. But it seems a long way from fruition.Canada,McKenna said, hopes its own action on banning plastic microbeads can be a model for other countries to follow, and that this can spread to the broader group of G20 countries.

The Badung conference, called the International Zero Waste Cities Conference, was aimed at being a learning, sharing and collaborating venue to enable cities to pursue and accelerate the global transition to Zero Waste. Organized by the Alliansi Zero Waste Indonesia and GAIA Asia Pacific, the conference was hosted by the cities of Cimahi, Soreang, and Bandung. It served as a venue for city and community leaders from Zero-Waste cities  and municipalities in Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, USA, and Europe to showcase how their communities divert waste from going to landfills through at-source waste segregation, composting, and anaerobic digestion.

The Philippines was a focus of the Bandung conference, and rightfully so. Virtually every stream is befouled with plastic waste and highways are strewn with plastics. Grate in his presentation shared the results of waste and brand audits conducted in Philippine cities and communities in 2017 showing that multinationals—Nestle, Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever and Coca Cola—are among the top 10 plastic polluters in the country.  That is consistent with a  waste and brand audit conducted in 2017 by Philippines-based member organizations of the #breakfreefromplastic movement along a stretch of Freedom Island, an artificial island in Manila Bay, that showed the same companies in the top 10.

“The net income in 2016 of the top six multinational corporations polluting the Philippines isUS$27 billion. As they rake in money for these problematic products, they are also making cities spend scarce resources to collect and manage this waste,” Grate said, citing the example of 17 Metro Manila cities spending US$87 million on cleanup in 2012, an amount he said is better used to provide basic social services to the poor.

Grate also challenged the representative of the France-based world food company Danone, who was on stage as Grate made his presentation, to do more to get their company off the list of top 10 local brands that are polluting Indonesia.

“While recycling should be pursued and recognized, we can never recycle our way out of the plastic problem. Companies must reduce the amount of plastic that they use and eliminate problematic products and packaging,” he stressed.

He also called on the government officials present to help them in demanding responsibility from these companies. “We hope cities would step up and be our partners in calling on these companies to take responsibility for the products that they sell and the waste they create. They cannot pass the work of managing waste that you can neither compost nor recycle. So please join us as we call everyone to break free from plastic because that will all help us go for Zero Waste,” he said.

Jed Alegado is Regional Communications Officer for Asia Pacific of the global #breakfreefromplastic movement.