The War on Plastics

Plastics and their pollutive consequences have recently garnered a huge amount of media attention – and with good reason. Since its foray into mainstream use in the 1950s, global plastic consumption has expanded at a rate far exceeding our ability to effectively manage the waste it produces. This is now a major environmental issue. Plastic consumption has risen to the same inauspicious level as climate change when discussing the world’s most pressing ecological concerns.

  • Less than 20% of plastic is recycled globally. In the US, the figure is less than 10%
  • UK consumers purchase approximately 3.7m tonnes of plastic each year. Only 23% of this is recycled.
  • Half of the world’s plastic is currently produced in Asia, with China alone accounting for 29%
  • Almost half of all plastic ever made has been produced in the past 15 years
  • Number of plastic bottles produced by the Coca Cola Company in a single year? 128,000,000,000
    (read: one-hundred and twenty-eight billion)

Source: BBC, National Geographic (June 2018)

The figures surrounding issue of plastic are staggering. Recent estimates put the amount of plastic currently residing in our oceans at 250,000 tonnes – consisting of 5 trillion individual pieces 1. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that most estimates regarding the length of time it takes plastic to biodegrade start at 450 years 2. This means that if Sir Francis Drake had tossed a plastic bottle overboard whilst circumnavigating the globe in 1580, it’s likely that bottle would still be afloat today.

Where is the problem most obvious? Thanks to prevailing currents, ocean-borne plastics are largely concentrated in five zones known as gyres. The largest of these, located off the West coast of the US, is known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ and is roughly the size of Texas 3. One example of where the effect of oceanic plastic waste is being profoundly-felt is in nearby Hawaii. National Geographic has highlighted one study which estimated that up to 15% of the sand on the beaches Hawaii’s Big Island is not actually sand – but rather microplastics (pieces smaller than one-fifth of an inch across).

Left: Ocean Gyres. Right: Kahuku Beach – Hawaii.

In a UK context, the picture is not much brighter. A key issue in the UK and other developed nations is the fact that not all plastic is recyclable. For example, ‘thermosetting’ plastics such as electrical sockets, burn when heated and therefore cannot be recycled. On the other hand, ‘thermoplastics’ such as bottles of water, melt when heated and are therefore recyclable. A further issue resides in the fact that many local authorities in the UK will not recycle certain types of plastic if a follow-on buyer for that plastic cannot be secured. An example would be plastic tubs such as those used for creams and yogurts. Approximately 25% of UK councils do not accept these for recycling 4. Cling film is another example, with only 20% of local authorities accepting it for recycling as it tends to be contaminated with food particles which attract pests. It can also cause issues for automatic sorting machines 5. The unnecessary use of plastic products is also a major factor impacting the issue. A flagrant example of this here in the UK? Plastic-wrapped coconuts which can be found in supermarkets Waitrose, Marks and Spencer and Ocado 6.

At present, from a regional perspective the largest contributor in terms of plastics use and follow-on pollution is Asia. As Asian economies have developed and consumers have become wealthier over recent years, the use of plastics has grown exponentially, and so too has the waste it produces. Half of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste is generated by just five countries – all of them Asian: China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and The Philippines 7. The major issue in Asia is that countries simply do not have sufficient waste management infrastructures in place to cope with the increase in plastic usage. Interestingly – and somewhat disturbingly – the UK has exported millions of tonnes of plastic waste to China in recent years. Data compiled by Greenpeace show that since 2012, 2.7m tonnes of UK waste has been shipped to China and Hong Kong 8. However, in January 2018 China imposed major restrictions on the amount of plastic waste it will allow into the country, which could have serious negative implications for UK recycling and waste management facilities.

Chinese plastics sorting and recycling facility

Most of our clients will no doubt be familiar with the fact that Holden and Partners specialises in Ethical, Sustainable and Thematic (EST) investment management. It follows then that the issue of plastics is one which we have followed closely. Encouragingly, many of our core EST funds have taken action against the plastics epidemic and in fact see investment opportunities in the solution(s) to the problem. We have provided some salient – though by no means exhaustive – examples on the following page.

5   As above.