A new study released on March 8, 2023, warns that plastics consumption could double by 2050.
That’s not great.
Plastic, as a material, is pretty incredible. Its ability to resist breaking down and not reacting with most things it comes into contact with makes it extremely useful as containers for many industries.
Unfortunately, this same trait makes it a nightmare for the environment and us humans. Plastics take hundreds of years to break down, and in the meantime they become microplastics, microscopic bits of plastics that get into everything – our water, our air, and of course, us.
It’s estimated we ingest a credit card’s worth of plastic every year. So taking this new study into account, by 2050 we’ll be consuming two credit cards a year. Terrific.
The new report by Back to Blue – an ocean health initiative by the Economist magazine’s research arm, Economist Impact, and the Nippon Foundation – estimates plastic consumption will go from 261 million tonnes in 2019 to over 400 million tonnes in 2050. And it says we need governments worldwide to agree to policy action to curb the use of plastics.
Many governments have already banned or are planning to ban SUPs, or single use plastics. This is definitely a first step. While plastic is a necessary material for use in some industries like healthcare, it is completely superfluous in others. There is a certain tragicomedy spin to the idea we choked our planet with plastics because we didn’t want to wash our cutlery for a few decades.... Of course, that’s simplifying it, but getting rid of SUPs is a necessary first step.
The next step is deciding which industries absolutely need to use plastics. The toy industry can definitely do without. As a father, I am constantly shocked at how much plastic is used in kids’ toys. Probably about 90% of my son’s toys are made of plastic. And I’ll try to get them reused but, ultimately, most of them are going to end up as microplastics that we ingest them or they’ll choke some fish somewhere. It’s not a pleasant thought.
You could say, "Stop buying plastics!", and I do try to minimise doing that, but individual action is no longer enough. Things won’t change on a large enough scale and quickly enough until government policies make it too expensive to make plastics.
By increasing the cost of making plastics, recycling plastics might actually take off as a way to keep producing plastic goods (becoming part of what's called a circular economy). Right now, recycling is more expensive than creating new plastics so there is no incentive for businesses to pursue recycling.
Back in 2022, 175 counties agreed to work on a treaty to tackle the plastics problem, vowing to come up with a treaty to curb plastics use by 2024. Now, I realise it takes time to come up with solutions and this is a very complicated problem, but I’m seeing shades of the various climate change accords over the decades.
At these annual climate conferences, world leaders meet, hands are shaken, photos are taken, and sound bites are regurgitated about how the planet will meet climate change head on – at a later date. That has been happening without any enforceable goals for a long time, decades.
For this reason, colour me sceptical that all these countries can come up with a treaty to get rid of plastics in two years. What I do expect is a treaty that states some goals with no penalties imposed on countries that don’t meet them, and then we have global climate action 2.0: All talk and nothing happening.
What’s for sure is that something will happen, it just might not be what we want. In experiments, microplastics ingestion has been shown to shut down organs in animals. The world's aquatic life is already literally choking on microplastics as fish ingest the pellets, mistaking them for food, and the plastics get passed into the food chain. Even water in the furthest reaches of the globe have microplastics in it now.
What is the breaking point for the ecosystem, or human life, for consuming microplastics? If global leaders don’t get together and come up with some rational solutions, I have a feeling we’re going to find out.
Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – a model who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at email@example.com and follow him on Instagram @bigsmilenoteeth and facebook.com/bigsmilenoteeth. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.