We dive into the plastic pollution crisis, and speak to the co-founder of an innovative start-up whose solution is green in more ways than one.
News recently broke that 55% of global plastic waste is produced by just 20 companies. The largest of these is ExxonMobil, which contributes to 5.9 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, with the remaining 19 companies also consisting of major players in the oil and gas industry, such as Dow and Sinopec. This plastic production is funded by a small group of leading banks. With the decarbonisation of the transport and electricity industries, petroleum companies are pivoting into plastic production, as plastic is made from oil and gas. This supply coupled with the demand of FMCG giants, and other companies that utilise plastic for single use packaging, is causing serious problems.
“An eighth continent”
“Currently the issue is that a lot of plastic is produced every year, around 380 million tons,” explains FlexSea co-founder and Head of R&D Thibaut Monfort, “and out of this over twelve million tons is disposed of in the ocean. That’s equivalent to one garbage truck every minute, so by the end of this interview there will probably be at least twenty [additional] garbage trucks floating in the ocean.”
In fact, there’s so much waste in the oceans that there is an eighth continent forming out in the Pacific. Named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s about 3 times the size of France and is growing constantly, killing thousands of marine animals annually. Plastic waste in the ocean breaks down into microplastics and contaminates the entire marine food web from phytoplankton to whales. While the effects of this is unknown, one thing is certain, that massive amounts of plastic will be embedded in marine wildlife forever. Monfort also points out that plastic waste is an economic loss, as you lose the material you dispose of, and you lose money from collecting the material from the ocean due to the pollution it causes.
Contrary to popular opinion, recycling plastic is not a sufficient response to the problem. Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled. Even then, the plastic that is produced is of a lower grade than the recycled material, while plastic losses in the process are ejected back into the environment. This means that even if 100% of plastic was recycled, virgin plastic from fossil fuels would still be in high demand. Recycling delays the problem and props up the oil industry in the process. However, little action has been taken to rectify this inefficient system. The incentives to do so, either for governments who have promoted it or oil companies profiting from it, are small.
“A credit card’s worth of plastic”
The remaining 91% of plastic waste ends up in landfill, the environment, or incinerators. Plastics are so chemically stable that they take thousands of years to break down in landfill. Wild animals can get tangled up in plastics left in the environment and suffocate or drown, and they can leach harmful chemicals into the groundwater of surrounding ecosystems. Incinerated plastics emit greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change. Even in landfill or in the environment, plastics release greenhouse gases as they degrade. Estimates suggest that by 2050 plastics could be responsible for 13% of the planet’s total carbon budget.
These harmful chemicals and microplastics that enter the environment and oceans are then up taken into the food web. Forever plastics found in animals, fish, or even circulating in the air we breathe then enters human bodies. The average person consumes a credit card’s worth of plastic per week. Plastic cannot be broken down in our bodies, so it tends to stick around in our organs. Monfort explains that plastic has been found in women’s placentas, so even before we’re born we surrounded by plastic. Some studies have linked these plastics to infertility in men.
So what is the solution for this environmental and health crisis? We spoke to Thibault Monfort about his new venture to find out what the future of single-use packaging could look like.
Find out in Part II.