Fighting Plastic Waste

Each year, all over the world, around 400 million tons of plastic are produced. Part of the plastic is recycled and reused, but an even larger part ends up as plastic waste that finds a place where it does not belong. Between 1.8 and 4.6 per cent of plastics produced worldwide end up in the sea. The sea surface alone is polluted with 5.25 trillion floating pieces of plastic that account for a total weight of 270,000 tons. But plastic waste also accumulates in the soil on the mainland. According to a study by the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), the soil even contains four to 23 times as much plastic as the water.


The main reason why plastic waste can spread so widely is the fact that it is shredded. After all, plastic is not degraded, but only ground down. Once the plastic has undergone this grinding-down process, it is called microplastic (in the case of particles that are smaller than five millimetres) or even nanoplastic (in the case of particles that are smaller than 0.1 micrometres). However, microplastic arises not only because of the grinding down of larger plastic parts, but is also a component of cosmetics and detergents.


Microplastic is especially dangerous because it is eaten by animals. It causes them to starve even though their stomachs are full. Figures show that 94 per cent of the fulmars found dead on the beaches of the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs. The effects of nanoparticles have not yet been conclusively researched. According to an experiment conducted by the UBA, Germany’s main environmental protection agency, plastic particles can accumulate in cells and interfere with the communication between cells. According to the Leibniz study, nano-sized particles can penetrate human cells, transmit pathogens and trigger inflammations.

However, plastic does not have to be small to cause damage. Turtles mistake plastic bags floating in the water for jellyfish and try to eat them. Plastic also forms extensive “carpets of waste” on the ocean surface: the largest of them floats in the North Pacific and is also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; it covers an area of 3,499,074 square kilometres. Just for comparison: the European Union has a total area of 4,381,324 square kilometres.


Once again, the EU has announced that it will take far-reaching measures to tackle the issue of plastic waste and counteract its harmful effects. The timing of this catalogue of measures can, above all, be contributed to the fact that in December 2017 China announced it would all but cease to accept further waste from Western countries. Until now, 85 percent of our waste has been dumped there. No longer.

There are two possible approaches for dealing with plastic waste: recycling or reduction. Both approaches involve, in particular, doing without those plastic products that are thrown away after single use. “Forty per cent of the plastic produced each year in Europe, that is around 20 million tons, is used solely for packaging,” says Holger Bär, Research Associate at the Futurium, referring to figures provided by PlasticsEurope. “Therefore, there is great potential here for reducing our plastic consumption or designing plastic packaging in such a way that the raw materials used in the production process can be recycled and reused.”


The EU has formulated the goal of making all plastic packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030. Currently, only one third of plastic waste generated across the EU is being recycled. Accordingly, the EU plans to support the development of recyclable materials and the improvement of recycling and waste-disposal processes. The EU will also soon introduce a logo for biodegradable and compostable plastics. New regulations for port facilities are supposed to ensure that less waste enters the sea from this source. The directive for this is expected to be submitted soon to the European Parliament and Council for decision.

These measures follow on from the 2016 ban on plastic bags and are part of the EU strategy to promote the so-called circular economy with its focus on recycling. Prior to the introduction of the restriction, each EU citizen consumed an average of 200 plastic bags per year. Germany’s consumption was well below the average at 70 bags. But this number is still too high. By 2025, the EU hopes to have reduced consumption to 40 plastic bags per person.

However, it is not only the greater goal of the so-called circular economy that is connected to the plastic strategy. A decrease in the demand for plastic is also required in order to achieve the objectives of the Paris climate agreement. “Virtually all plastics are produced using chemicals that are derived from fossil fuels,” Holger Bär explains. “The longer we hold on to petroleum-based plastics, the more we will intensify climate change. Current trends indicate that, by 2050, we will need one fifth of our global oil consumption just to produce new plastics,” Bär says, drawing on figures from the Center for International Environmental Law.


Apart from the large-scale EU measures – many of which have not yet taken concrete form and can be regarded above all as declarations of intent – ordinary citizens and businesses have already begun to take small-scale action against the plastic flood.

In Great Britain, corner shops selling unpackaged groceries are experiencing a boom; and a smaller supermarket chain has also announced that it will at least no longer wrap its own home-brand goods in plastic, but instead offer them in paper and wooden packaging. This does not mean, however, that products from other sources will no longer be sold in plastic packaging. A similar trend can also be observed in Germany. Apart from individual shops, whole chains have also entered the race: in Berlin, for example, the organic supermarket chain Bio-Company has launched its 50th branch – using no plastic bags whatsoever.

Photos: dronepicr (Plastikmüll im Meer) [CC BY 2.0 (http-_creativecommons.org_licenses_by_2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Umweltbundesamt