Plastic is lightweight, cheap and durable. It has many advantages and it would be difficult to conceive of contemporary society without it. It is easier to transport volumes in plastic bottles than in glass ones. And food lasts longer in plastic. Plastic is also cheap to use for packaging. It is this type of plastic production that is increasing the most. Plastic is durable, which precisely why its presence in our ecosystems is undesirable.
Since 1950, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced. Equivalent to the weight of 80 million blue whales. Almost half of this has been produced in the last decade (2007-2017) alone. In 1976, consumption of plastic per person was 2 kg; in 2017, it had risen to 43 kg. Modern consumer society emerged after World War II and cheap, mass-produced goods started to become popular. Many of these were made of plastic. Everything from toys to glass bottles and zinc buckets began to be replaced by plastic versions. From 1960, plastic articles became ubiquitous in Norwegian homes.
European plastic production is now stable at just under 50 million tonnes a year, whereas, globally, production is on the increase. Worldwide production of plastic amounts to approximately 365 million tonnes. Production is expected to quadruple by 2050. Industry wants more plastic as packaging for goods and manufactured products. Almost a quarter of the plastic used in Norway is for packaging, and the packaging industry is a multi-million turnover business.
Plastic is largely made from oil and gas, which are not renewable resources. To make a kilo of plastic requires 2 kilos of oil. In Norway, the goal is to achieve a material recycling rate of 30% and energy recovery of 50%. Material recycling means converting used plastic into new material, while energy recovery means utilising the energy in plastic for fuel. There are increasing numbers of products being recycled from plastic. It is therefore important to demand products made from recycled materials. It is, however, debatable whether we should recycle more, or whether this should be weighed against other pressures on the environment from transport and production emissions.
Plastic in the ocean is a global responsibility. 30% of plastic in Europe is recycled, 25% in China and 9% in the US. Worldwide, recycling is slowly but dependably on the up, by around 0.7% a year since 1990. If the present trend continues, by 2050, around 44% of all plastic produced will be recycled. The recycling of plastic is very challenging, both economically and technically.
What happens next?
There is increasingly more research on plastics and microplastics in the ocean. The UN’s goal is to reduce all forms of marine pollution by 2025, especially as concerns pollution from land and ocean littering.
The environmental authorities in Norway have allocated NOK 60 million to the clearing of plastics from the beaches and oceans. Five Norwegian ports are taking part in a pilot project in which fishermen can hand in plastic waste. Preparations are also in hand for a return scheme for plastic boats and manufacturer liability schemes for the fisheries and aquaculture industries.
Efforts are also being made to reduce the use of disposable cutlery, plastic bottles, plastic bags and pollution from cosmetics, textiles, paints and car tyres. In 2017, the Norwegian Government set aside NOK 150 million for a fund to assist developing countries in preventing plastic littering.