CRADLE TO GRAVE: Plastic Supply Chain

PLOS ONE JOURNAL, the world’s first multidisciplinary Open Access journal published an article by Marcus Eriksen et al. titled Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea on December 10, 2014. After earning his Ph.D. from USC, Eriksen went on to co-found the 5 Gyres Institute with Anna Cummins and led expeditions designed not only to gather data, but also to raise public awareness that roughly 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the world’s oceans every year.

Less than a year later (October 2015) Fast Company published an article by Ben Shiller for the business community: Most Of The Plastic In The Ocean Comes From Just A Few Polluting Countries

According to research published by the Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, up to 60% of that waste comes from five countries: China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. So it makes sense to focus on those places first. But. . . does this seemingly logical assumption make sense?

EcoWatch agreed that just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam account for 60% of Plastic Pollution in Oceans, that these five countries dump more plastic into the oceans than the rest of the world combined. This chart shows top plastic polluters.


But where were these plastics invented?

This history of the development of plastic packaging lists most of the innovations as occurring in the United States. If so, then we are blaming the receivers of our packaging for the garbage in the oceans.

Where is plastic packaging produced?

The bulk of plastic packaging production occurs in different countries from those blamed for polluting our oceans.

1. China $18 billion 

27.2% of Total Exports. From toys to clothing, electronics to home goods, major industry players such as Yantai Huaguan Packaging Co. Ltd., Shenzhen Well Mold & Plastic Products Co. Ltd., China Raina Industry Co., Ltd., and Foshan Rifeng Enterprise Co. Ltd. enable China to be the country that exports the most plastic in the world.

On this list of the top eight plastic producers, only the number one producer is also the number one ocean plastic polluter: China. But China has the commercial momentum, the resources, and the vision to have a huge impact on this problem from both the production and pollution ends of the spectrum.


2. Germany $7.8 billion

11.8% of Total Exports. Germany is Europe’s largest producer and manufacturer of plastics, including machine manufacturers, plastics and rubber recycling, processing and various plastics-related operations, including packaging, electrical engineering, automotives, and many others.

3. United States $6.3 billion

9.5% of Total Exports. Plastics manufacturing is the United States’ third-largest industry, employing nearly one million people in the US in companies that are plastics manufacturers or suppliers, with a total of 1.4 million plastics-related jobs overall. These jobs are tied to the ubiquity of injection molding and plastic manufacturing facilities, of which there are nearly 16,000 throughout the US producing nearly 108 billion pounds of plastics and resins (2013).

The only other country, besides China, that is both on the list of top plastic producers and also on the list of top plastic polluters is the United States (Number 3 Producer and Number 20 Polluter). So it would make sense for China and the United States to collaborate to spearhead the challenge of reducing unnecessary plastic production and plastic pollution.

4. Italy $2.6 billion

3.9% of Total Exports. Luxottica, the world’s largest eyewear brand, Indesit, a home appliances company, and many fashion brands, from Gucci and Prada to Versace and Armani, all require plastic in their production, whether a box to store and ship dried Barilla pasta, or elegant plastic translucent bags for new designer items.

5. France $2.5 billion

3.5% of Total Exports.With an overall industry value of $22.2 billion as of 2015, the French government issued a ban on all plastic cups, plates, and cutlery in late 2016, requiring all such products to be compostable by 2020.

6. Taiwan $1.9 billion

2.9% of Total Exports: Taiwan’s plastic production industry boasts over 700 different member corporations. Chief among these are such industry giants as Formosa Plastics Group, which produces an array of intermediate plastics products, such as PVC.  In 2016, the company was ranked in the top half of Forbes’ 2000 largest public companies in the world.

7. Hong Kong $1.8 billion

2.8% of Total Exports. Entrepreneurs, such as Li Ka-Shing, that built their respective fortunes on the manufacture of popular products such as plastic flowers, Hong Kong is one of the world’s major hotspots for plastic production. Unfortunately, this has also led to large quantities of plastic–often up to 2,000 tonnes each day–being discarded improperly and generating significant waste in the city.

8. Mexico $1.7 billion

2.6% of Total Exports, from producers such as Plasticos Herol and Osterman Plastics de Mexico

Many articles portray the problem of ocean plastic waste and unfairly blame Indonesia and the Philippines, poor countries which have inadequate facilities to process plastic trash, much of which is not produced by them:

• Suzanne Jacobs, Grist, for the Audubon Society;
• Patrick Winn for the Global Post;
• Amy Nordrum for the International Business Times;
• Katherine Martinko for Tree Hugger: The UN has declared war on ocean plastic pollution
• World Atlas: Countries Putting The Most Plastic Waste Into The Oceans.

Roger Harrabin in the BBC News describes the commitment of Asian nations to reduce plastic waste dumped in oceans. The Clean Seas campaign was launched to eliminate major sources of marine plastic and change shopping habits. The United Nations declared war on plastic. At a UN oceans summit, delegates from China, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines said they would work to keep plastics out of the seas. Some of the promises are not yet formalized and environmentalists say the measures proposed are not nearly urgent enough. But UN officials praised the statement. Meeting in New York, they said it was part of a clear international shift against ocean pollution. Eric Solheim, the UN’s environment director, told BBC News: “There are quite encouraging signs, with nations taking the ocean much more seriously. Of course, there is a very long way to go because the problems are huge.”

In an unexpected announcement that emerged from the Economist World Ocean Summit in Bali, the UN officially launched its ‘Clean Seas’ campaign. The goal is to eliminate major sources of pollution, including micro-plastics in cosmetics and single-use disposable plastics, by pressuring governments and individuals to rethink the way goods are packaged and their own shopping habits. Bringing it home, NRDC offers and easy guide of 10 ways each of us can reduce plastic pollution.

A recent study suggests that 86% of the plastic that ends up in our oceans is running through Asia’s rivers, which account for more ocean plastic than all other continents combined.

Dutch researchers from the Ocean Plastic Foundation found that the Yangtze river’s mouth, where the conduit meets the sea, had a plastic concentration of 4,137 particles per cubic meter—and contributed 20,000 tonnes (22,046 metric tons) of plastic every year to the oceans. In December, two ships dumped more than 100 tonnes (110 metric tons) of waste such as needles and plastic tubes into the Yangtze river.

Asia generates relatively little waste per person

Despite generating relatively little waste per person, compared to the consumer-oriented West, total waste generated by the continent of Asia adds up. China is sensitive to this hard-to-solve problem. China manufactured the most plastic products—around 74.7 metric tons—in 2015, according to the 2016 report by Plastics Europe, a trade association that tracks the plastics industry, followed by 49.8 metric tons from Canada, Mexico, and the US combined. China began charging consumers (link in Chinese) for plastic usage in 2008 to fight against pollution. The country’s booming delivery industry, fueled by e-commerce, is often not recyclable. For example, last year delivery companies used 12 billion plastic bags (link in Chinese).

M. Burgess & Z. Gill for earthDECKS


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