The great river Brantas in Java provides the drinking water for more than six million Indonesians, yet every day around 1.5Million soiled plastic nappies are chucked into it.
Cities along its 320 km length can’t keep up with growing populations, and consumer habits are changing fast as companies flood the shops with plastic packaging. The result is widespread childhood illnesses and skin rashes, fouled beaches and polluted food.
But change is coming. This year international environment group Common Seas teamed up with the 2 million strong Indonesian women’s group Muslimat, and, backed by the Governor of East Java, 7 cities along the Brantas signed up to a massive information campaign to stop the nappies getting into the river. Common Seas is supporting women’s groups to make re-usable nappies, volunteers are collecting waste, people are being educated about plastic, and the river Brantas, slowly, can expect to recover.
2019 was the year of the Great Plastic Backlash, when communities around the world from those along the Brantas to Mediterranean and Indian ocean islands took steps to clean up the tsunami of plastic waste that has overwhelmed them. It saw voluntary action translated into corporate and political pledges, giant food, drink and health companies shamed into action, shops introduce plastic-free aisles and going plastic-free become trendy.
2019 was also the year when the petrochemical industry and giant food, drink and beauty companies locked the world even further into fossil fuels, creating gargantuan mountains of plastic for communities and future generations to deal with and making almost too late to hold global temperatures to 1.5C.
Ultra-cheap shale gas from the decade-long US fracking boom continued to fuel a surge of billion-dollar investments in new cracking plants which separate ethane from gas to produce ethylene, the building block of most plastic. Since 2010 the petrochemical industry has invested around $200bn, and with $100 billion more planned to be spent, plastic production is expected to grow 40% by 2030.
The implications, for countries struggling to cope with climate change and thousands of communities fighting tides of plastic are only now being understood. From having little impact on climate just 20 years ago, the production and disposal of plastic now uses nearly 14% of all the world’s oil and gas. Plastic production is expected to grow to 20% by 2050 by which time the industry’s climate emissions could rise to 2.75 billion tonnes a year and plastic could be driving half of all oil demand growth. Plastic, says the International Energy Agency, could take up to 15% of the remaining annual carbon budget and make the fast-growing industry the equivalent of the world’s fifth-largest climate heating country, emitting more than Germany or the UK, twice as much as all African countries and nearly as much as shipping and aviation combined.
Even as anger mounted in 2019 against rich countries’ reluctance to act on climate change, it became clear that plastic was Big Oil’s great hope for expansion, and one of the world’s leading drivers of climate change. Shell’s giant $6 billion ethane-cracking plant now being built near Pittsburgh, will produce 1.6m tons of plastic a year but is just one of dozens of similar size plants planned for the US, India, China and the Middle East.
Despite UN hand-wringing, and corporate pledges, demand for plastics grew a further 3.5% in 2019 and up to 16% in much of Asia. Latest figures suggest 359 million tons were produced in 2018.
Nearly one third went to single-use packaging and less than 10% was recycled. The rest went to landfills, was burned in incinerators adding to climate emissions and increasing air pollution or was left uncollected, with approximately 8 million tons making its way to the sea via rivers.
But 2019 was also the year of worldwide revolt against plastic pollution and hundreds of potential solutions and initiatives were initiated. Great steps were taken by the public to clean up beaches and seas but in Britain, the size of the task was underlined in November when a sperm whale was found on a Scottish beach. When vets performed a post-mortem, its stomach spewed out a 100kg ball of plastic rope, fishing nets, cups, shopping bags, gloves, packing straps, tubing, sachets, bottles and many other plastics items symbolic of the global consumer society. Such beachings were common in 2019, with plastic-filled whales and cetaceans found washed up in Wales, the Philippines, Indonesia, Italy and the US.
Rattled by public disgust at the sight of choked animals and soiled coastlines, the packaging industry was forced to respond. Food and drink giants like Unilever, Mars, Danone, Pepsico and Coca Cola pledged to reduce the amount of virgin plastic they used by 2025 and to increase the amount of recycled plastic. The Global Commitment on Plastic, introduced in late 2018 to get corporations to pledge to use less and recycle more, grew to over 400 of the world’s biggest companies. Together they are responsible for more than 20% of all the plastic packaging produced.
Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose in the UK raced each other to ditch “black” plastic from their own ranges and to accelerate the amount of recycled material they use. Asda stated that nearly one-third of its plastic packaging would come from recycled sources by the end of 2020 and all should be “recyclable” by 2025. Waitrose said it had removed 90% of the 2,291 tonnes of black plastic. Some initiatives were eye-catching; Tesco pledged to remove one billion pieces of plastic from products for sale in UK stores by the end of 2020.
David Attenborough detected a cultural change, telling the Glastonbury crowds that the world was changing its habits on plastic. But he may have been wrong. Greenpeace and the Environment Investigations Agency showed that more plastic than ever was put on shop shelves in 2019 and only Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s of the 10 major chains marginally reduced the amounts they used. Plastic water bottle sales, indeed, soared.
Academic research, too, confirmed that pollution was worse than ever in 2019 and that the fishing industry is to be held somewhat responsible. The Dutch Ocean Cleanup project, working in the Great Pacific garbage patch, found more than half came from discarded plastic nets and rope, fish aggregating devices [FADs], buoys, long lines, crates and floats. French researchers showed how plastic litter at the bottom of the Mediterranean had tripled since 1990 and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 if business is allowed to continue as normal.
Wherever researchers looked, they were horrified. One study found an estimated 1.8 million pieces of plastic, old tyres, and fishing gear on the seafloor of the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Canada; the WWF calculated that 570,000 tonnes of plastic went into the Mediterranean each year - the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles every minute and plastic was found widely in the food chain and in human bodies.
Under pressure from governments but unwilling to produce less, the industry turned in 2019 to “bio-plastics” which convert the sugar present in plants and crop residues into plastic.
Big manufacturers like BASF, Dow, Huhtamaki, Plantic, Mondi, Huhtamaki, and Amcor all ramped up research into plastic from corn, wheat, potatoes, soybean and cotton. The market is still small but is expected to grow 20% a year into a $70 billion a year industry by 2024.
But critics insisted that bioplastics were not the answer. Not only can they take up land needed for food production, but most bioplastics need high temperature industrial composting facilities to break them down. With few local authorities able to handle them, the result is most must go to landfills where they are likely to release methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Industry attempts to appear green mostly ended in confusion. Products were increasingly classed as “compostable, “biodegradable”, “re-cyclable”, “re-useable” or “bio-based”. But most of these terms meant little. “Bio-degradable” plastic was found to be intact after years at sea; not all compostable materials, it was found, could be composted at home; and “recyclable” depended on the local waste stream; with few standards and no time-scale attached to bioplastics, many were branded as “false solutions”.
Faced with heavily polluted coastlines, a hostile media and angry tourists, the EU launched its Plastics Strategy in 2019.
This aims to ensure that all plastic packaging is “reusable” or “recyclable” by 2030. It also called for 90% of all plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025. The new UK government pledged in the Queens’s Speech, to ban the export of plastic waste to poor countries, and to introduce a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% of recycled content from 2022. It also said it would stop by April 2020 the use of 4.7bn plastic straws, the 316 m plastic stirrers and the 1.8 billion plastic cotton buds we use.
Asian countries consuming more than half the world’s plastic packaging are now faced with massively polluted coastlines have promised to act.
India and Peru planned to eliminate all single-use plastic by 2022 and the Maldives said it would phase out all its non-biodegradable plastic. By the end of 2019, more than 120 countries had banned plastic bags and 60 more countries said they would impose taxes. Many US states banned or said they were planning to phase out plastic bags.
The industry fought back. Companies may have promised publicly to stop using certain types of plastic, but their trade bodies lobbied strongly in 2019 against new laws and argued to be allowed to continue to produce more. Plastics Europe, and the British Plastics Association, along with some supermarkets trade bodies, lobbied against proposed deposit return schemes, bans, and new recycling targets. The US industry responded with threatening lawsuits against local authorities and cities who tried to introduce bag bans.
Instead of waiting for governments and industry, coalitions of global and local NGOs, international banks, conservation groups and some plastic producers volunteered to clean up rivers and beaches, and help governments collect and recycle waste. Common Seas works with islands and resorts in the Maldives and Greece, and with city authorities in Indonesia to prevent plastic getting to the ocean. Volunteers cleared millions of pieces of plastic from Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Latin American, Chinese and Indian beaches.
Novel ways to collect plastic from rivers and oceans were introduced. The Ocean Cleanup project launched the “Interceptor”, a barge-like vessel theoretically able to harvest up to 100,000 kg of plastic waste a day from heavily polluted rivers. Waternet, which manages Amsterdam's canals, invented a “Bubble barrier” to catch floating debris. New Naval adapted oil spill technology to invent a mesh barrier system to collect river plastic; and Mr Trash Wheel scooped rubbish out of the Jones Fall River in Baltimore with waterwheels.
By the end of 2019, the war between the petrochemical companies and those who would stem their tides of plastic was fully engaged but was still being largely won by the petrochemical industry which resisted all attempts to force it to reduce production.
2020 is widely seen to be critical. In June, the UN will host the Oceans conference in Portugal where worldwide progress will be assessed, and countries will make new pledges to prevent plastic polluting the seas. Many proposed government bans should also come into force and hundreds of smaller initiatives to recycle more and reduce pollution should start to grow and make a difference.
What is certain is that calls for a reduction in plastic use will grow louder and the industry will resist. But unless ways are found to use less, most of the efforts to stem the flood of plastic entering the environment will likely prove only temporary and, in the end, insufficient.
John Vidal was the Guardian's environment editor. He joined the paper in 1995 after working for Agence France Presse, North Wales Newspapers, and the Cumberland News. He is the author of McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial (1998) and has contributed chapters to books on topics such as the Gulf war, new Europe, and development.