Community Manager at BCN Smart Technologies
Product Manager at BCN Smart Technologies
In 1907, Leo Baekeland, a Belgian scientist working in a laboratory in New York, had just completed his new invention. Baekeland had just discovered the world’s first fully synthetic plastic. Little did he know this project of his was to become one of the most important innovations in history, for better and for worse.
We have enjoyed the benefits of plastic for decades that it is hard to imagine a world without it. However, everything comes at a cost which in this case happens to be the environment. Is our over-reliance on plastic worth the damage it is causing to planet earth? Many of us consider recycling the answer to all our plastic-related problems. However, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), only 9% of plastics that have ever been produced in the history of the world have actually been recycled. Approximately 12% have been incinerated while the remaining 79% have ended up in landfills and the environment. Our oceans are especially a point of concern. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that plastic is the most common form of litter found in the ocean with 14 million tonnes of plastic waste being discarded in them every year. These plastic wastes are being broken down into tiny particles known as microplastics. This is a cause of concern, as microplastics are not only harmful to wildlife such as fish but can eventually end up inside people. A study by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) that an average person globally could be ingesting a credit card worth of plastic per week.
Plastic has since then exploded into mainstream use becoming arguably the most ubiquitous material on the planet. Half of all plastic ever produced has been made since 2005. In fact, plastic production has dramatically increased from 2.3 million tons in the year 1950 to an incredible 380 million tons in 2015, with numbers predicted to double by 2050. Researchers have estimated that we have since the 1950s, we have produced more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we might even reach those numbers ahead of schedule. A recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has highlighted just how much the pandemic has contributed to an already out-of-control problem. For example, medical equipment supplied by the United Nations (UN) during the initial stages of the pandemic alone has generated waste that weighed the same as 262,000 Jumbo Jets. Plastic being a key component in syringes, face masks, gloves, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and more have become a major contributor to medical waste.
So why is more not being done in terms of recycling plastic? This is because, contrary to popular belief, a lot of the plastic waste that we produce is simply not recyclable. Despite this, major corporations that manufacture plastic in their products still insist for the Recyclable Logo to be placed on non-recyclable plastics. In Malaysia, only three out of the seven types of plastic actually get recycled. It is less common in the case of the other four types due to the lack of technologies and facilities in the nation. The idea that all plastics are able to be recycled and that consumers can use as much plastic as they want just as long as they recycle is a concept that has been fed to consumers for a long time, leading to the coining of the term ‘Wishcycling’. Wishcycling in this context refers to the act of consumers badly wanting to believe that all types of plastics that end up in the recycling bin are being recycled despite the evidence saying otherwise.
Countries like the United States have long been exporting used plastics to other countries in an effort to get rid of plastic waste with other first world countries following in that example. The premiere destination used to be China, accumulating 70% of global plastic waste, until it was banned in 2018. In 2020, official data from Statista showed while Turkey was the largest importer of plastic waste, accounting for 13% of global plastic waste, Malaysia comes close at third place at 8.3%. Currently, Malaysia sits in second place next to Canada for being the top export market for US Scrap plastic as of January 2021, accounting for 22 million pounds according to Resource Recycling Inc. Since then, Malaysia has become a popular choice as the new destination for plastic waste from countries all over the world including France, United States, United Kingdom, Japan and more where they end up in our landfills and pollute our environment. In 2018 alone, Malaysia has imported over 850,000 tonnes of plastic with a large portion going to companies operating illegally. Just one of the many issues of dumping plastic waste on to other countries is that they may not have the capacity to deal with their own plastic waste, never mind waste from other countries. In the case of Malaysia, a lack of recycling facilities meant that it was not surprising that Malaysians have resulted to other means such as the illegal burning of plastic waste, leading to the release of substances in to the air causing health problems to locals.
In Malaysia, the Ministry of Environment and Water (KASA) has set a Sustainability Roadmap 2021-2030 to further reduce the impact of plastic pollution on the environment. The roadmap also serves as a compass for stakeholders in preserving plastic based on the circular economy concept throughout the value chain. The Malaysian Recycling Alliance (MAREA) was recently established, made of the nation’s ten FMCG companies (Fast-moving Consumer Goods). They aim to recycle 5,000 tonnes of plastic waste by the end of the year. MAREA intends to cultivate a more disciplined recycling culture by initiating consumer education and public awareness campaigns to achieve large scale behavioural change in order to encourage both consumers and producers to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. In order for Malaysia to meet the JPSPN (National Solid Waste Management Department) recycling target of 40% by 2025, we will need to find and develop solutions to recycle the material value of key plastic resins so valuable plastics will then be recycled instead of being discarded. Approximately 1.07 million tonnes are discarded rather than recycled into valuable materials and this is where US$1.1 billion is lost annually. All the above information can sound a little discouraging. But in no way should it negate the point of recycling.
If anything, this new found information allows us to rethink the way we handle our recycling so that it can be done more effectively. For example, one of the dangers of Wishcycling is that by dumping all plastic wastes together in the same bin, it encourages mixing of different types of plastics. One lesson that can be learned from this, is to ensure that all types of plastics are separated properly which will in turn prevent the contamination of the plastics that are able to be recycled. ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’, increases the pressure on big corporations by holding them more accountable for producing large amounts of plastic products without having a viable solution for getting rid of them. A recent poll conducted by IPSOS found that a global average of 85% of people support the idea of standing up to companies that prioritise profits over the safety of the planet. The survey also discovered that 75% of people from across the globe agree that single-use plastics should be banned entirely which brings us to our next point. The best way of preventing plastic pollution is to not produce any plastics in the first place. It is our hope here at BCN Smart Technologies that the world reduces plastic pollution by moving towards Eco friendly alternatives. In 2022, that hope became a reality as the United Nations have agreed to create the world’s first global plastic pollution treaty. It is truly a landmark in our fight for a greener future. In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.