Maria Westerbos: Plastic Soup Foundation director calls for urgent cross-industry change
28 Mar 2023 --- Plastic Soup Foundation calls for urgency among policymakers to face the plastic pollution and health crises. It names the fossil fuel, plastic and fashion industries as choosing profit and ease over global protection.
Maria Westerbos, founder and director of the Plastic Soup Foundation and the Plastic Health Summit, tells PackagingInsights that the packaging industry has been “dodging a bullet” regarding plastic waste.
Plastic Soup Foundation looks to amplify the message of the harm plastic pollution causes to drive a cross-industry change to generate a tangible difference.
Who is contributing the most to plastic pollution?
Westerbos: While every industry has been complicit in this environmental and health crisis, the fossil fuel industry has contributed the most. Over 98% of plastics are produced from coal, oil and gas. Even now, oil companies are investing in plastic production. It’s unacceptable.
Plastic is the backup plan for an industry under the microscope for carbon emissions, but only recently has it been exposed for its role in perpetuating the plastic crisis. It is in the best interests of those who produce plastic to keep pumping it out into our environment with little to no consideration for its impact on humans, wildlife and the planet.
Another major contributor to this crisis is plastic companies themselves. Since the Second World War, more than 8,300 megatons of plastic have been manufactured, and plastic production is expected to double again in the next 20 years. This is outrageous, it hurts the environment, as well as our own and our children’s health, and it violates human rights.
We can all try to make choices to be more environmentally friendly, but ultimately, the consumer cannot fully achieve change. It must be brought about by governments and industries listening to the science, recognizing the scale of the problem, and working together to take meaningful action on this issue throughout the lifecycle of plastic.
How have packaging companies been falling short in reducing plastic waste?
Westerbos: Many packaging companies have been operating under a business-as-usual approach and consistently dodging a bullet regarding plastic waste. Why would they want to change when they have grown fat for so long from providing society with a cheap and easy material to fuel our overconsumption?
It is a broader problem than just packaging companies. Society as a whole must reevaluate how we view business and how we interact with the environment. It can no longer be good enough that so many are allowed to wash their hands of any responsibility when the product they produce or their production chain is so damaging to wider society.
Plastic waste volume has only increased in the last few decades, and packaging companies are culpable. Plastic pushes other materials off the market, often with false environmental claims. This is wrong. We need to start looking at the impact of plastic through the whole value chain, from production to end-of-life. Once we do this, the picture becomes negative for plastics.
How are governments falling short in reducing plastic waste?Westerbos: Policymakers must show more urgency on this global health crisis. The only way to deliver comprehensive systems change is by accepting the scale of the issue and by working cross-sector and tackling this problem throughout the entire production cycle. A piecemeal approach to environmentalism will never deliver real change.
Recent bans on certain single-use plastics are a step in the right direction, but it is only a small slice of the pie. Governments continue to ignore the toxic chemicals that leak into our environment and are used to produce plastic. They still ignore the microplastics used in so many cosmetic products. They continue to ignore the fibers of plastic released into the air and water from our clothes.
Concerning waste exports, I welcomed the EU’s recent announcement in February to ban plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries. Clearly, Europe needs to accelerate efforts to address the global plastic pollution problem.
Plastic waste exports should be banned entirely for countries outside of the EU, which needs to be halted sooner than what has been committed to. The damage has already been done to our planet and the health of human beings, but this can be resolved with more urgency and collaboration. I urge the EU to develop a comprehensive action plan that halts plastic waste exports while addressing the release of intentional and unintentional microplastic fibers in the fashion industry. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this issue and burden the globe with our toxic waste.
How is fast fashion contributing to our plastic pollution crisis? How should the industry combat this?
Westerbos: Synthetic fibers are the largest source of microplastics in the oceans and are the staple choice of the fast fashion industry. According to research from 2017, no less than 35% of all marine microplastics come from synthetic textiles. And that will only increase. The global production of clothing has doubled in the past twenty years. Currently, almost 70% of all clothing is made of some form of plastic, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, or polyamide.
There is a clear link between high exposure to nylon fibers and two types of irritable bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis). It is madness to clothe ourselves in materials that may be poisoning us.
It should therefore be prohibited to market clothes that wear out so quickly and lose so much fiber. It’s time we saw fast fashion for what it is: a revenue model for the oil and clothing industry and a danger to the environment and our health.
What are some solutions Plastic Soup Foundation implements to counteract plastic pollution?
Westerbos: The Plastic Soup Foundation focuses on one thing: stopping plastic pollution at its source and doing this as soon as possible! We believe that solving this problem is possible, but policymakers, experts, and business leaders must sit around the table and invest in preventative solutions.
At Plastic Soup Foundation, we help hold a microphone to the latest scientific evidence that is constantly coming out about this crisis. Most recently, we have been bringing to light plastic’s detrimental impact on human health. Last year, we released a report highlighting microplastic fibers’ adverse health impact.
With the Global Plastics Treaty around the corner, Plastic Soup Foundation calls on the European Commission (EC) to show more urgency in their actions and bring forward a comprehensive action plan focusing on human health.
By Sabine Waldeck
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