How plastic bottles overwhelmed us
A sales surge is harming wildlife, coastlines and oceans, write Sandra Laville and Matthew Taylor
Amillion plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change. Figures obtained by the Guardian show a surge in usage of plastic bottles, more than half a trillion of which will be sold annually by the end of the decade. The demand, equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being bought every second, is driven by an apparently insatiable desire for bottled water and the spread of a western, urbanised “on the go” culture to China and the Asia Pacific region.
More than 480bn plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300bn a decade ago. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun. By 2021 this will increase to 583.3bn, according to the most up-todate estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report.
Most plastic bottles used for soft drinks and water are made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), which is highly recyclable. But as their use soars across the globe, efforts to collect and recycle the bottles to keep them from polluting the oceans are failing to keep up. Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7% of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.
Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year where it can be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Experts warn that some of it is already finding its way into the human food chain.
Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated people who regularly eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Last August, the results of a study by Britain’s Plymouth University reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Last year, the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research, citing increasing concern for human health and food safety “given the potential for microplastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”.
Hugo Tagholm, of the marine conservation and campaigning group Surfers Against Sewage, said the figures were devastating. “The plastic pollution crisis rivals the threat of climate change as it pollutes every natural system and an increasing number of organisms on planet Earth. Current science shows that plastics cannot be usefully assimilated into the food chain. Where they are ingested they carry toxins that work their way on to our dinner plates.”
In the UK 38.5m plastic bottles are used daily – only just over half make it to recycling, while more than 16m are put into landfill, burnt or leak into the environment and oceans each day.
The majority of plastic bottles used across the globe are for drinking water, according to Rosemarie Downey, head of packaging at Euromonitor and one of the world’s experts in plastic bottle production.
China is responsible for most of the increase in demand. The Chinese public’s consumption of bottled water accounted for nearly a quarter of global demand, she said. “It is a critical country to understand when examining global sales of plastic Pet bottles, and China’s requirement for plastic bottles continues to expand,” said Downey. In 2015, consumers in China purchased 68.4bn bottles of water and in 2016 this increased to 73.8bn bottles. “This increase is being driven by increased urbanisation,” said Downey. “There is a desire for healthy living and there are concerns about groundwater contamination and the quality of tap water, which contribute to the increase in bottle water use.” India and Indonesia are also witnessing strong growth.
Plastic bottles are a big part of the huge surge in usage of a material first popularised in the 1940s. Most of the plastic produced since then still exists; the petrochemical-based compound takes hundreds of years to decompose.
Major drinks brands produce the greatest numbers of plastic bottles. Coca-Cola produces more than 100bn throwaway plastic bottles every year – or 3,400 a second, according to analysis carried out by Greenpeace after the company refused to publicly disclose its global plastic usage. The top six drinks companies in the world use a combined average of just 6.6% of recycled Pet in their products, according to Greenpeace. A third have no targets to increase their use of recycled plastic and none are aiming to use 100% across their global production.
Plastic drinking bottles could be made out of 100% recycled plastic, known as RPet, but brands are hostile to using RPet for cosmetic reasons because they
want their products in shiny, clear plastic, according to Steve Morgan, of Recoup in the UK.
Coca-Cola said it was still considering requests from Greenpeace to publish its global plastics usage. A spokeswoman said: “We continue to increase the use of RPet in markets where it is feasible and approved for regulatory food-grade use – 44 countries of the more than 200 we operate in.” She agreed plastic bottles could be made out of 100% recycled plastic but there was nowhere near enough high quality food grade plastic available on the scale needed to increase the quantity of RPet to that level.
Greenpeace said the big six drinks companies had to do more to increase the recycled content of their plastic bottles. “During Greenpeace’s recent expedition exploring plastic pollution on remote Scottish coastlines, we found plastic bottles nearly everywhere we went,” said Louisa Casson, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace. “The soft drinks industry needs to reduce its plastic footprint.”
Clear problem … more than 480bn plastic bottles were sold worldwide in 2016