Waste, as far as the eye can see. The world seems to be drowning in waste. New land masses are being created consisting of pure plastic. This “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” now covers three times the area of France. Europe is desperately trying to counteract this catastrophic trend. The EU has banned cotton swabs, drinking straws, and disposable plastic tableware, as well as removable plastic lids for PET bottles. Certain Swiss cities have banned plastic tableware from their territory. All that’s missing is a state of emergency.

But are these measures really enough? Where does the plastic waste cluttering the world’s oceans and beaches come from? Why don’t we just do without plastic altogether? What are its advantages?

The modern art of plastic

Plastic is a relatively modern phenomenon. It’s only since the mid-1970s and the advent of new processes that there it’s been produced in significant amounts. In the history of the world, an estimated 7.8 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced. That’s more than three times the total biomass of all humans and animals combined. Half of all plastic ever produced has been produced in the last two decades (see Fig. 1). Plastic exists in vast quantities. But is it necessarily a problem?

Polymorphic polymers

The glut of plastic comes with all sorts of drawbacks. Large pieces of plastic clog the stomachs of countless living creatures, while microplastics poison and threaten entire ecosystems. A number of environmental organizations are therefore calling for a general ban on plastic. Why are such radical demands not followed up on immediately? The answer is relatively simple: plastic is incredibly useful. It can be formed into almost any shape, is break-resistant, lightweight, and, if desired, transparent. In its most common use, packaging, plastic can shine, fulfilling a wide variety of requirements:

  • Facilitating storage and transportation (stackability and modularity)
  • Protecting and keeping fresh (stability, sterility, and hygiene)
  • Allowing contents to be dosed or extracted multiple times
  • Meeting legal requirements (e.g., food safety, information requirements)

This diversity is itself a disadvantage. For example, there are hard plastics for window frames or pipes, elastomers for tires or rubber that need to be pressable and stretchable, and thermoplastics that need to be hard yet plastic for a wide variety of packaging. Uniform recycling of these very different types of plastic is extremely inefficient. Multilayered layers of different plastics (so-called composites) are not suitable for recycling at all. The recycling rate is estimated to be no higher than 20 percent to 40 percent.

Problem already solved?

In fact, Europe seems to have been comparatively successful in terms of containing the plastic problem in the world’s oceans ‒ even before the symbolic policy bans on microplastics enacted in 2021. A 2019 study shows the waste discharge into the world’s oceans by continent (see Fig. 2). Europe appears there as a marginal player at around half a percent. The major share comes from Asia, the origin of 81 percent of the waste in the world’s oceans. One river alone, the Pasig in the Philippines, is responsible for 6.4 percent of the waste that enters the world’s oceans through rivers. The ten largest “waste-carrying” rivers are responsible for 15 percent, more than the entire continents of Africa, North America, Europe, and Oceania combined.

Against this backdrop, the new European measures seem absurd; the ban on plastic drinking straws merely salves the soul and the conscience, because local plastic tubes, plastic lids, and plastic bags play a clearly subordinate role in the global plastic problem. All of Europe’s rivers combined carry far less than 1 percent of the world’s waste into the oceans (see Fig. 2). Instead of fighting for a clear conscience, we need a discussion about the efficiency of the measures and the goals we want to achieve. And for this to happen, we need suitable criteria to compare and weigh up measures.

The irony of recycling plastic

For the West to make Asian countries the scapegoat isn’t entirely fair. After all, Europe in particular is literally exporting its plastic problem. In 2019 alone, the EU exported 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste to developing countries, which are clearly overburdened with the task of recycling and recovering such masses. Given the lack of controls and guarantees of appropriate disposal, these waste exports will sooner or later end up in the sea.

The well-meaning intention of separate plastic collection instead of thermal treatment in a local waste incineration plant thus becomes a problem. The volumes of waste in Switzerland are often said to be too small to justify a local sorting plant. At the moment, separately collected plastic is exported to a country like Germany for sorting. A not inconsiderable proportion of this is then sent to Asia. This is precisely what the environmentally conscious Swiss recycler wanted to prevent from the outset. Local, separate collection turns out to be the best way of ensuring plastic ends up in the ocean.