Where does all the trash in the canal keep coming from? And what can be done about it?

Year after year the volume of trash in our streets increases. Is it linked to the growing production of plastic? Or is it the fault of the industry and the supermarkets, who are fighting against stricter environmental measures? Why is the situation getting out of hand and is there still a way out of this crisis?

In October 2020 we asked ourselves this very question. Where does all the plastic packaging floating in the canal come from? We did a little brand audit and here is what came out: a top 16 where big companies such as Coca-Cola, Mars, Mondelez, Pepsico, Nestlé and Unilever but also the main supermarkets rank high. Of course this did not come as a surprise since these very same companies are always at the top of the lists of other cleanup organisations throughout the world. Coca-Cola has been the number 1 of the worldwide audit of the “Break Free From Plastic” organisation for three years.

Break Free From Plastic Brand Audit 2020

These companies and supermarkets have been producing single-use plastic packaging at an unprecedented pace and they have been flooding the world with it. It is not possible anymore to take a stroll through the city, in nature, along a river or on the beach, or even to swim in the sea without being faced with it, at home or on vacation. The problem is truly global and some countries are more impacted than others. And yet the big polluters are the same everywhere.

Where does the idea of recycling come from?

Lately there is a lot of talk around the issue of litter in our streets and especially in the oceans. But it’s not the first time that the problem is in the public eye. When mass production began, plastic packaging did not just appear on the market but also in the streets, as trash. In the 70’s the public opinion in the US started to shift against this material that becomes worthless after use. The plastic industry thus started to invest millions into campaigns while pointing fingers at the people littering as the main cause of the problem. The goal was to place all responsibility on the consumers, giving them a free hand to continue producing plastic. These campaigns aimed at giving the impression that all plastic trash is recycled or reused and that there is thus no reason to stop consuming it. Several decades have passed since and still only 9% of the plastic ever produced in the world has been recycled. Worse, out of these 9%, the majority has been downcycled, i.e. transformed into a product of lower quality, which often cannot be recycled a second time.

What is the situation in Belgium?

The above mentioned campaigns were very successful and, as a result, the production of plastic has been constantly growing to reach 380 million tons per year today, 40% of which is destined to single-use products. The world is literally flooded. But the plastic lobby did not let their gard down and continued investing in campaigns stressing the importance of recycling and blaming the consumers for the global litter problem. In Belgium the industry and the supermarkets are represented by Comeos, Fevia and Fost Plus (responsible for the “blue bin bag”). They are behind awareness-raising campaigns such as De Mooimakers in Flanders and Be Wapp in Wallonia, and they give support to cleanup organisations. Beside their focus on recycling, they are asking for more control and for higher fines for people littering, and they encourage people to clean their own neighbourhood. Their main message: if you don’t litter and you put your trash in the right bin, they will recycle it. And with the new “bleu bin bag”, they will be able to recycle even more plastic.

But the truth is that recycling is no miracle solution. Of course, we should try to recycle as much glass, metal, paper and plastic as possible to reuse the precious raw materials. But contrary to glass and metal, much of the plastic packaging is simply not recyclable, and when it is, it is often downcycled creating a product of lesser quality. Moreover, the lionshare of our plastic trash is not treated in Belgium but sent to poor countries where it pollutes the environment, either because it cannot be recycled or because it is but under very bad conditions. It is moreover important to note that, because of the very low price of oil, it is more costly to produce recycled than virgin plastic, making it difficult to find a market for recycled plastic.

The industry and the supermarkets put their products on the market and there stops their responsibility, easy and cheap. In some countries, they have to pay a contribution but they do not have to take care of collecting and treating the packaging, as it would be the case with reusable containers. Rather, they are fighting  tooth and nail against the introduction of a deposit system for bottles and cans, against the obligation of a higher percentage of recycled plastic in their packaging and against a bigger financial contribution for the collection and treatment of trash. In The Netherlands the sum invested by the industry to fight against the deposit system in the last decades is greater than what they would have had to pay to install it in the first place. Try to figure. In Belgium the industry pays a contribution for trash collection via Fost Plus, according to the polluter-pay principle. The original idea was a noble one but in the meantime, this contribution has become a lobbying tool, with a big hold on the authorities, which have already tried to introduce a deposit system but in vain. Yet it is proven that a deposit system is an effective way to combat littering, 40% of which consists of plastic bottles and cans. Such a system allows for a collection of more then 90% of beverage packaging. It’s a logical step in the fight against plastic pollution and the authorities should put it in place asap.

But are the producers and supermarkets the only bad guys in this story?

Today the awareness around plastic focuses mainly on the last stage of its life, namely when it has turned to trash and litters our streets and oceans. But plastic starts to pollute the environment long before that. Its story actually begins with the petrochemical industry, a lesser-known but nonetheless crucial player. Indeed, plastic is made from oil and gaz, a big part of it being produced cheaply ia fracking in the US. As a result of the increasing awareness around climate change, people are turning to renewable energy and electrical cars, and the demand for oil and gas is decreasing. So what do the oil giants do to continue growing? They invest in the production of plastic, which was originally only a by-product of this sector. Worldwide 340 billion euros will be injected in the  next five years to increase the plastic production capacities. Ineos’s plan for the construction of a new chemical plant in the Port of Antwerp is a good example of these investments, which should enable to double plastic production within the next 10 to 15 years and to triple it by 2050. “It is truly absurd that the plastic industry thinks that they can double their CO2 emissions while the rest of the world is intent on reducing them to zero.”, so Kingsmill Bond from Carbon Tracker. All the efforts to counter climate change would be annihilated if more oil is used to produce ever more plastic.

What can we do?

We have to break the vicious cycle of single-use plastic by holding the industry and the supermarkets fully responsible for the collection, recycling and reuse of packaging, by forcing them to prefer reusable containers, by forbidding non-recyclable packaging as well as deceptive symbols leading people to believe that some packaging are recyclable when they are not.

If we wait upon the industry to act in the right way, nothing will ever change. Do you want to help? Let the authorities know that you are not satisfied with the current situation, ask for the introduction of a deposit system on bottles and cans, and support organisations fighting for it.

There are also many cleanup actions. There are a good way to raise awareness and to realise the extent of the issue. However they cannot be considered as a solution and, with the wrong information, they might even contribute to reinforce the idea that the people littering are solely responsible for the problem. If you decide to participate in such an action, make sure that you check who organises it and what is the motivation behind it.