In 2016, the world generated 242 million tonnes of plastic waste—12 percent of all municipal solid waste. This waste primarily originated from three regions—57 million tonnes from East Asia and the Pacific, 45 million tonnes from Europe and Central Asia, and 35 million tonnes from North America.
The visibility of plastic waste is increasing because of its accumulation in recent decades and its negative impact on the surrounding environment and human health. Unlike organic waste, plastic can take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose in nature (New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services n.d.). Plastic waste is causing floods by clogging drains, causing respiratory issues when burned, shortening animal lifespans when consumed, and contaminating water bodies when dumped into canals and oceans (Baconguis 2018). In oceans, plastic is accumulating in swirling gyres that are miles wide (National Geographic n.d.). Under ultraviolet light from the sun, plastic is degrading into “microplastics” that are almost impossible to recover and that are disrupting food chains and degrading natural habitats (United States NOAA n.d.). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2016) anticipates that, by weight, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050 if nothing is done.
Plastic waste mainly enters the environment when it is poorly managed, such as through open dumping, open burning, and disposal in waterways. Unfortunately, with more than one-fourth of waste dumped openly and many formal disposal sites managed improperly, plastic litter is increasing. Even when plastic waste is collected, many countries lack capacity to process the waste. In 2017, Europe exported one-sixth of its plastic waste, largely to Asia (The Economist 2018).
There are many ways to curb plastic waste—by producing less, consuming less, and better managing the waste that already exists to prevent contamination or leakage. Taking these actions requires engagement from numerous stakeholders in society, including citizens, governments, community organizations, businesses, and manufacturers. Policy solutions, increased awareness, and improved design and disposal processes, among others, can minimize the impact of plastic waste on society.
Policy: Before pursuing dedicated plastics management solutions, governments must first focus on holistic management of waste. Cities need consistent collection services, safe and environmentally sound disposal, and consistent enforcement of policy before targeted interventions for plastic can be fully effective. Without strong basic waste management systems, plastic is likely to continue to be dumped when uncollected, citizens and businesses are less likely to comply with restrictions on materials for consumption or manufacturing, and cost recovery for waste systems will continue to be a struggle. With adequate primary waste management services in place, many cities have succeeded in focused interventions. For example, San Francisco, United States, implemented a plastic bag ban that led to a 72 percent decrease in plastic litter on local beaches from 2010 to 2017 (Mercury News 2018). In Rwanda and Kenya, plastic bag bans have been implemented effectively with financial and other legal penalties (de Freytas-Tamura 2017). In 2018, the European Union launched a strategy called Plastic Waste that aims to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and to ensure that waste generated on ships is returned to land (EU 2018b). However, innovative policies concerning plastic will not solve the issue of plastic mismanagement without proper institutions, systems, and incentives.
Society: Management of plastic waste often starts at the household and individual levels, and strategies to educate and motivate citizens can dramatically change behavior. In Jamaica, community members that serve as Environmental Wardens sensitize their neighbors about local cleanliness and safe and environmentally friendly disposal of waste. Environmental Wardens are community members employed by the Jamaican National Solid Waste Management Authority through a World Bank–supported project (Monteiro and Kaza 2016). Their role is to spread awareness about waste management and to keep communities clean and healthy. The communities and schools that are part of the project collect plastic bottles in large volumes, through competitions, and remove plastic litter from shared spaces and drains. They sell the collected plastic bottles to recyclers.
Industries: Plastic waste can be reduced or put to productive use at both a local and a global scale. Industries can alter manufacturing processes to reduce the amount of material needed, use recycled materials as inputs, or design new materials that can be degraded or more easily recycled. At a local level, recovered plastic can be used as inputs to make cement blocks, roads, and household goods such as baskets and mats (Growth Revolution Magazine 2009). These outlets for productive use can, in turn, drive increased collection and recovery of plastic waste. With about half of the plastic ever manufactured having been produced in the past 15 years, the collaboration of industry in reducing production and improving recycling is increasing in importance (National Geographic 2018).