An international team of researchers set out to determine who should be held accountable for the world’s plastic packaging waste. According to the paper published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, only 14 percent of plastic waste is recycled.
Study co-author Sandy Dall’erba is a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE) and director of the Center for Climate, Regional, Environmental and Trade Economics (CREATE) at the University of Illinois.
“We wanted to follow the plastic packaging waste embedded in the global supply chain. This work allows us to conclude the problem is a responsibility shared between economic agents, from the producers and their intermediaries to the retail stores and the consumers,” said Dall’erba.
The researchers found that the top producers of plastic package waste are also some of the world’s wealthiest countries and biggest consumers, including the United States (19%), Brazil (13%), and China (12%). The experts also found that animal agriculture, the most significant contributor to global climate change, produces a lot of plastic waste.
“High-protein food such as meat, fish, and dairy is a trademark in the Americas and those generate a lot of plastic packaging waste,” explained Dall’erba. “For instance, every 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) of fish consumed will lead to an average of about 1.6 kg (2.5 lbs.) waste. This includes plastic bags, trays, and cellophane used to wrap and cover the fish during transportation, storage, and sales.”
Global trade is also a significant contributing factor. The study authors state that 25 percent of plastic packaging waste results from international exports. The researchers acknowledge that plastic is not going anywhere anytime soon. But, we can make changes to produce less waste.
“We need to further develop technologies that make plastics more biodegradable, such as products based on algae,” said Dall’ebra, who emphasized that we also need stricter regulations to discourage plastic packaging production and use.
“All agents along the supply chain and final consumers need incentives to reduce plastic use. Some examples are taxes on waste management or refunds for returning plastic bottles,” explained study lead author Xiang Gao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“Other steps include banning of single-use plastic straws, or imposing fees for grocery store plastic bags. Consuming locally grown, seasonal food would help, and so would better transparency about the true recyclability associated with the resin identification code stamped on plastic packaging.”
The researchers concluded that producers and consumers must share responsibility and costs of tackling the increasing burden of plastic packaging waste.