AsiaClimate ChangeEconomy And TradeEnvironment

Environmental Turning In Our Drinks?

There is no ideal plastic material. Its residual value today depends more on how plastic is used, and today’s plastic consumption has caused significant economic and environmental damage. Plastic is the most popular material today and that is due to its low production cost, lightweight and its functionality. However, this ‘perfect’ material has caused severe impacts throughout the world.

According to McKinsey Center for Business and Environment – Ocean Conservancy, the growth in global use of plastic-intensive consumer goods is likely to increase over the next ten years. If we continue at this pace there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans  by 2050.

The call for a full ban on single-use plastics is strong. Photo: Marco Verch/flickr.

Each of us has a role to play in addressing this issue, the private sector even more. Although it is difficult for any single actor in the value chain to independently drive full-life-cycle implement. However, there are some companies that have set out goals regarding plastic consumption. One player in the value chain that has taken action towards the plastic consuming is the Swedish company Tetra Pak.

Plastic packaging is the least recycled material, with only 14 percent collected for recycling in comparison to other materials. Also, more than 40 percent of plastic is single-use, which of course is alarming. Even worse, is that almost a third of the plastic packing ends up in nature and hurts our planet from various perspectives.

Plastic packaging. Photo: Tetra Pak/flickr.

Furthermore the worst plastic item is the single-use straw because the vast majority of them are never recycled. According to For A Strawless Ocean, the key reason for that kind of pollution is because most plastic straws are too lightweight to make it through the mechanical recycle sorter.

From the economic perspective, single-use plastic product harms both the environment and the consumer as the product has no second-hand value, and is therefore not a part of the circular economy that benefits the industry, consumer and environment.

There is an environmental turning point lurking in our drinks. Tetra Pak aimed to launch a paper straw for their portion-sized carton packages before the end of 2018. They did this to address the issue of plastic straw waste, which is a paradigm shift as Tetra Pak is one of the biggest global suppliers of plastic straws. It is not only a shift in the private sector, but also on international level. The European Parliament has voted this year to ban single-use plastic such as straws and cutlery, which are two of many one single-use plastic that will decrease today’s number on 25m tons of plastic waste in Europe.

Research has displayed that rapidly growing economies plays a significant role in the plastic that pollutes the oceans. One significant reason for this is poor waste-management infrastructure. The predominant part of the plastic comes from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Why these countries? Well, they have quite recently reduced poverty and benefited from their GDP, which have increased a demand for consumer products. The demand of certain products in these countries has not yet met with the countries waste-management system.

It is important to point out that even the most sophisticated waste-management systems leak plastic waste. Even in well-established waste-management countries, the rising consumption of plastic packed products increase the risk of a plastic-waste-leakage problem.

Nevertheless, resources and action needs to be taken in the emerging countries, if we would only focus on these five countries, that together make up for between 55-60 percent of the total plastic-waste leakage, the impact would be significant. One company in the value chain that has taken action in highlighting the impact on good recycling habits in Vietnam is Tetra Pak.

In September 2018, Tetra Pak launched a pilot-recycling program in Ho Chi Minh City targeting 30 kindergartens. The program focus is to educate the younger population on good recycling habits. The program educates them on how to put the straws back into the portion-sized carton packages, in other words, Back in The Pack, then flatten, fold and dispose the cartons properly.

Tetra Pak machinery. Photo: Tetra Pak/flickr.

Apart from Tetra Pak’s green innovation movement in the bigger value chain, a Vietnam-based company aims to raise public awareness of the plastic crisis that makes two straws out of sedge grass, which has a hollow stream as a plastic straw harvested from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

This is one step in the right direction. However, there is still much more to do if we want to decrease the plastic waste leakage. This problem relates to each and one of us, and we need to think twice before using plastic. Is that plastic straw really necessary in your drink when you know the bitter aftertaste?

Christel Rydström

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