How plas­tic bot­tles over­whelmed us

A sales surge is harm­ing wildlife, coast­lines and oceans, write San­dra Lav­ille and Matthew Tay­lor

The Guardian Weekly - - Discovery -

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.”

Fred Du­four/Getty

Clear prob­lem … more than 480bn plas­tic bot­tles were sold world­wide in 2016

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