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Does Economics Have The Answer

Does economics have the answer for the global problem of plastics pollution?

Of the 6.3bn tonnes of plastic produced post 1950s only 9% has been recycled with another 12% incinerated . The rest dumped in landfills acting as a catalyst in the destruction of the natural environment often after brief one-off indulgences as with coffee cups, sweet wrappers & water bottles. Globally, the production of plastics has recently exceeded 300million tonnes per annum with likelihood this figure could rise severely in the next few years. The marine environment paying most dearly from this with the vast majority of litter in the sea being plastic as oppose to metal, glass or paper (Galgani et al. 2010) .

We live in a time where plastic pollution has become increasingly urgent; there has been an accumulation of discarded plastic, which has failed to decompose, in the extreme example leading to ‘Great pacific garbage patch’;

The government office of science described the issue as ‘hazardous for mariners and reduces the amenity value of coastlines necessitating costly ongoing cleanup operations. In addition, there are emerging concerns of potential negative consequences for human well-being, but currently there is a lack of evidence on which to base firm conclusions here .

The root cause of this issue is the components of which yield plastic; hydrocarbons forming polymer chains which do not decompose into other compounds unlike paper among other more common waste. In addition, when exposed to UV light via the sun, it can fragment entering to be consumed by fish subsequently disrupting and intoxicating the fish population, affecting the 100 million tonnes of fish consumed each year world wide .

Government intervention has unsurprisingly followed, with major changes occurring in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Kenya with fish making up almost 20% of their average per capita animal protein intake making intervention a necessity. The intervention has consisted of plastic bag bans with a punishment of up to four years imprisonment and a fine of $40,000 showcasing the severity of the issue. Moreover China, one of the biggest pollutants of plastic with the famed waterway of Yangtze among that contributing to 4million tonnes of plastic ending up in the earths ocean annually , barred imports of plastic waste and this followed with the intervention from the EU with the “plastic strategy” aiming to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030 and raise the proportion recycled from 30% to 55% in the next 5 years . Intervention has also occurred more close to home with the UK introducing the levy of a 5p charge on all single use carrier bags as well as similar recyclable plastic packaging targets.

The various means of intervention employed globally thus acts as an indicator as to the severity of the problem and with plastic being intertwined as a product of economic activity, it is synonymous that economics does indeed have the solution for the global problem of plastic pollution.

Whilst plastic bag bans are effective, they have an intrusive nature and have caused political tensions; whilst I believe the overconsumption of plastic bags is a key contributor to the plastic pollution problem, I must concede plastic bags have many societal benefits and are key in maintaining a well oiled and efficient system which has become the norm in recent generations where plastic bags are the mean source of moving and carrying large quantities of items for a low cost and thus hold several advantages. I am in greater harmony with subsidies provided by the government on reusable bags which are a trending alternative to single use bags, championing all the features of a one-use bag such as carrying large cargo but posing several advantages in regards to being more durable, being able to carry more and aesthetically allowing consumers to express themselves further coming in a variety of designs and colors. Whilst this would clearly require government funding through subsidies, as reusable plastic bags become more widely spread and available, I believe they would provide the best possible framework for a change in consumer and in producer behaviour & in the long term ensure the 2.17bn spent on (plastic) waste each year is exponentially reduced.

Awareness of this issue and the comments and opinions of the British public with almost 61% agreeing not enough is being done in regards to plastic pollution as well as popular public figures, recently, British no.1 Johanna Konta putting pressure on associations such as Wimbledon to reduce the supply of plastic water bottles, have all helped to push the vision of a plastic free future .

A stumbling block, which has led to Europe consuming more than 56 million tonnes of plastics each year and producing 24 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, is the lack of infrastructure and industries geared to dealing with post consumer plastic materials. Whilst metals are fairly easily recycled with the infrastructure being both matured and efficient, plastics are a relatively new revolution only being introduced less than 100 years ago, thus has been the lack of infrastructure and primary recycling in the plastic field. Once more another issue is the sheer array of plastics showcasing different grades and types thus making recycling very difficult; There is no uniform plastic which can be recycled or reused inside a moulding machine or film extruder. This would allude to the fact research and government initiatives for private enterprises to both increase the quality and yield of recyclable plastic. If and when this critical mass is crossed, industries borne on plastic recycling will naturally evolve with the potential of a lot of money to be made acting as a signal for firms to enter the market.

Another initiative, which has recently become active is that of the ‘collection, recycling and waste management solutions of south east Asia’ and plans to ‘to use the money to support municipalities, entrepreneurs, and nongovernmental organizations in their efforts to improve waste management systems’ .

Fortunately this is not an isolated initiative with others such as the ‘Austrian polyolefin manufacturer Borealis AG’ which launched a ‘a new $5-million project to improve waste management systems in Southeast Asia.’

Whilst these solutions of innovating biodegradable and more environmental plastics are promising, it is still potential and with any innovation is not without time lags and potentially years of development.

Another potential solution being through waste-to-energy. This solution is rather self explanatory, with waste being burned, vaporizing water into steam, consequently turning a turbine and subsequently generating power. This is a particularly appealing solution to countries in the Asian Pacific region of which are grappling with both plastic waste but also energy shortages and thus this solution would help correct both simultaneously. This is apparent in Australia, where the government has introduced subsidies for renewable energy following repeated blackouts. Moreover Australia also suffer with thousands of tons of plastic waste upon its coasts and one would conclude that the elegant solution of introducing waste-to-energy would be both environmentally and economically viable providing social benefits in regards to jobs and a better quality of life through reduced pollution among other benefits. None the less those oppose to this concept might argue the effects of incinerating would yield pollution of a different sort and put pressures on other sectors of the economy and environment. But incinerating methods may not be as harmful as first indicated with a study conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency identifying that waste to energy would help achieve lower greenhouse gas emissions by slashing the methane emissions generated via landfill sites as a result of plastic waste (as methane is more potent than the Co2) which would be contributed to the environment via incineration, this technology would bare benefits on all fronts however like the ‘Austrian polyolefin manufacturer Borealis AG’ & ‘collection, recycling and waste management solutions of south east Asia’ would have extreme start up costs (which would need to be provided by the government) and may take long periods of time to develop and refine.

These array of interventions from countries showcases the impact that economics can have on both changing the representation of plastic waste and seeking solutions on how to manage plastic waste; in the short term through altering consumer behavior in encouraging reusable bags, cups and more harshly employing bans on plastic waste, introducing levy’s like the 5p plastic bag but also in the long term in innovating new ways of producing a degradable plastic, waste-to-energy platforms both making it economically and environmentally viable. Whatever means of intervention employed, it should be acted upon quickly death of millions of animals occurring annually and the unprecedented environmental pollution occurring on a daily basis.