Eight out of the top-ten polluters are in developing Asia
IT IS everywhere, as visible as it is vilified. From car parts to crisp packets, plastic has suffused the Earth, and beyond—in 1969 Neil Armstrong planted a nylon Stars and Stripes on the moon. More than 8bn tonnes has been produced since the 1950s, enough to wrap the continents in clingfilm four times over. Only 9% was recycled; 60% was dumped, mostly in landfills, too often in the natural world. Untold tonnes end up as irretrievable ocean flotsam, which sunlight and salt fragment into microscopic pieces that attract toxins and may be gulped by creatures that become seafood.
Plastic weighs heavily on the mind, too. Nine in ten Europeans worry about its impact on ecosystems; three in four fret that it can harm their own health. In Britain hatred of plastic unites the right-wing Daily Mail, the leftie Guardian, and the queen, who has banned plastic straws from her castles. But hold on, the little scientists know about plastic suggests that although it is the most noticeable pollutant, it is far from the most harmful. Using less is at best a partial solution. A better answer is to collect more—especially in Asia.
The effects of plastic on nature and human health are hard to gauge. Most polymers are chemically inert. That makes them durable. It also makes them less likely to be a health risk to humans and beasts. As a pollutant, their impact is much lower than less tangible menaces. By one estimate, the environmental and social costs of plastic run to $139bn a year, chiefly from the greenhouse gases produced in its production and transport. The figure for farming is $3trn. Fertiliser run-off alone causes $200bn-800bn worth of damage to the ocean, compared with $13bn from plastic marine litter. Then look at the alternatives. A cotton tote bag must be used 131 times before its carbon footprint improves on that of a throwaway carrier bag.
This does not stop plastic from being a problem. But bans and penalties on plastic bags in rich countries may be better for the conscience than for the environment. Prohibition makes sense in poor places like Bangladesh and Kenya that lack proper waste-management systems. It is less useful in tidy France where rubbish collection works smoothly. It would be more effective for rich countries to shore up their recycling industries. They may have little choice in any case. In January China stopped receiving imports of recyclable plastic waste. Because it took half the total traded around the world, that has left hillocks of the stuff piling up in the West.
A carbon tax may spur recycling, which is less energy-intensive than producing virgin plastic.Mandating minimum recycled content in plastic containers, as California has since 1991, is also a useful tool. Governments could exempt second-hand polymers from value-added tax; after all, the tax has already been paid on the fresh source material.
But by itself, the West will not solve the problem. Among the ten biggest plastic polluters, all but two are in developing Asia. Together, they account for two-thirds of the plastic spewed into the ocean. Of these, only China could afford Western-style waste-management in the near future. Others are just waking up to the problem; before plastic began piling up, it reasonably seemed less of a priority for governments. Bangladesh may be able to copy India which, despite its 1.3bn people, falls outside the top ten thanks to armies of ragpickers. The rest, like Vietnam or Thailand, may be too wealthy for raddiwallahs, yet too poor for sophisticated rubbish collection. The rich world should focus its attention—and resources, including charity—on chivvying them along. That is the surest way to stem the plastic tide.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Plastic surgery"