The name is plastic, short-lived plastic

It is a hot day, you go to a convenience store. At the fridge, you take a bottled iced-water, pay at the counter, open it, pour all the way down your throat. Consume it in just 2 minutes, then you drop the empty bottle into a bin nearby.
This bottle, extracted from petroleum, has gone through processes of heat, cut, extrusion, twist and even a long flight, just to complete its 2-minute mission of quenching your thirst. Then it ends its fate under layers of dirt at the landfill, waits for a couple of centuries until it is fully decomposed and back to the mother nature.
You can’t see any shorter its product life-cycle could be, and any longer it is trashed, disposed and stayed underground.
Such a wicked scene happens every day in our city: Hong Kong people get rid of more than 6 million plastic bottles every day; 690 tonnes of plastic bags every day; and 9 billion disposable utensils every year straight into our landfills.
There was a groundbreaking environmental science journal paper “Production, use, and the fate of all plastics ever made” by Roland Geyer et al., published on Science Advances in mid-2017. The paper summarized the fates of the 8 billion tonnes of plastic products produced since 1950, half of them had only a life-cycle of 4 years. Life-cycle means the time a product ‘lived’ since manufactured until disposed of after consumption. For example, a bottle of soft drink has a rather short life-cycle of 3 months on average.
In the chart below, you will see plastic packaging (in blue) stood out by its super short life-cycle. It took a year to become trash but shockingly accounted for one-fourth of total plastic waste in the past 65 years.
One can understand the phenomenon from our daily routine: you go to a supermarket, buy a box of tomatoes, a bag of vegetables and fruits; you finish them in one meal. Where the plastic trays, bags and nets packing the food were thrown into your trash bin as part of the routine.
Let’s say it takes a long time to “hatch” a plastic packaging at the factory, storage and on the shelf, it becomes “dead” shortly after its “birth” on a consumer’s hand.

It is a global trend against plastic use lately. But in the eyes of life-cycles, plastic products aren’t necessarily the monster. For instance, car parts, infrastructural elements, architectural materials, plastic can last for a decade or even 50-60 years.
Relatively, the harms of plastic are due to its huge manufacturing volume, low recycling rate and high disposal rate. Taking a closer look at the data, you will see among all plastic waste, only 9% got recycled, 12% was burned in proper treatment facilities or not, 79% was buried in landfills or scattered in nature. It is not a surprise that you find short-lived plastic at farms, in the oceans, or inside the stomach of whales, birds and cows.
Due to the abundance of short-lived plastic, many concerned people have joined forces in beach cleanup to collect plastic bottles, straws and packaging. It is so satisfying to see a messy place turn neat after a day of sweaty experience. I am part of the action too, where I had a mix feeling of love and hate.
Everybody can tell, you will see shadows of short-lived plastic if you come back in a few months’ time; the place gets stuffed by plastic waste again when you come back in a year. It feels disappointed and frustrated when facing the never-ending marine garbage, no matter how satisfying it is for a beach cleanup. In fact, since 1964, plastic production has raised 20 times from 1.5 million tonnes to 300 million tonnes in 2014. Extrapolating to 2050, the total plastic produced will be heavier than all the fish in oceans.
Even with our non-stop effort, we wonder if picking up trash in nature is the ultimate?
I joined a conference host by an international beverage corporate a few months ago. In the wrap-up session, the corporate highly recommends a report of marine garbage “Stemming the Tide”. There are two main takeaways from the report: 1. More than half of such garbage came from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand; 2. The way out is incineration.
Not sure if their representatives had done their homework, that report ignited the anger of some international green groups and those in southeast Asia. They hosted a joint press conference, challenging the report that tries to shift responsibilities to developing countries. Although these countries lack proper waste management systems, the report ignored whose ultimate responsibilities these short-lived plastics shall be. Pushing hard on incineration has no effect on reducing over-consumption, but keep the short-lived plastic hot, for business.
What’s behind the anti-plastic movement in the recent years, is a competition among stakeholders for getting the focus of attention. Short-lived plastic manufacturers had an obvious responsibility. But they often either shift the focus to someone else or hide in the dark. It is not a simple fight even for a straw, lately, 8% of McDonald’s shareholders proposed for a gradual fade of disposable straws. The proposal got 480,000 Americans signed up but got objected by the Board as it is “unnecessary and redundant”.
Along with our beach clean-up works, the world has released annually a leaderboard of sorted data, including plastic bottles, packaging and bottle caps. But the work lacks a follow-up: apart from consumer’s responsibilities for the short-lived plastic, which beverage brands contributed to the marine pollutions, damaged ecology, ignored the responsibilities of reducing waste and recycling, after a thick-fat revenue? If no one chases them down, these corporates stay outside of the picture. Leaving us act like the Sisyphus in the Greek Mythology, who pick up their dumps indefinitely.
I am not settled, so The Green Earth is going to launch a campaign against short-lived plastic. We start with a “Survey on brands of Waste PET Beverage Containers”, inviting the public, individuals and groups to record the number of plastic bottles collected per brand during beach clean-ups and hiking trail clean-ups. With the data, we can produce our marine garbage leaderboard sorted by brands and to be released before the international beach clean-up day in this September. The survey focuses on the top runners, especially international brands, to spotlight their responsibilities of waste reduction and recycling. There are no borders in the ocean, therefore we also join forces with green groups in mainland China and Taiwan for continuous surveillance, and to release our report annually.
Unity is strength, we call for your support to this survey.
We look forward to launching more powerful and mobile beach clean-up actions in Hong Kong.
Forward: there is another big tiger of short-lived plastic hiding behind the beverage and consumer product brands, to be continued soon.
References: “4.22 Earth Day” – Ming Pao Sunday, 24 April 2016
Hahn Chu
Director of Environmental Advocacy
The Green Earth
Chinese version published on Ming Pao Daily, 15 July 2018
Translated by Edmond Lau