People Declare a Waste Emergency

People are declaring a waste emergency. The calamitous build-up of plastic waste is an obvious, documented, provable catastrophe unfolding outside our very window, in our waterways and soils, and even in the accumulation of microplastics and poisons in our bodies.

The government remains committed, according to their own words, to ending avoidable plastic by 2042. This target is entirely notional. It is like telling your doctor you will stop smoking in 15 years. By then, the damage will be so much worse.

The amount of plastic waste per human in the UK is 99kg – about two fourteen year olds per person, per year. Only the USA uses more than us.

At present, we are exporting 60% of our plastic packaging waste. We have vast quantities of plastic waste piling up from packaging, construction, homeware, and numerous other sources. We have car tyres which are being ground up and made into poisonous infill, or shipped across the world to be burned as dirty fuel, or to foist upon poorer countries. The oceans are filling with plastic and microplastic at such an alarming rate there will soon be more of it by weight in them than aquatic life.

How the Plastic Industry Turned the Pandemic to its Advantage

Our plastic is poisoning us by entering our blood, our waterways, our soil, and our food. Toxic chemicals from PFAS to PAHs, Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are accumulating in the environment and our bodies. Microplastics have infiltrated every corner of the Earth and have passed the tissue barrier in our organs.

But the ugly truth is that the worst impact of all of this toxicity is not on us but on the Global South. Our exports, which primarily end up being trafficked through Europe to countries in SE Asia and Turkey are being systematically mismanaged. This is colonialism in the 21st century: the very countries we exploit for mineral and food wealth are being duped into being our dustbin, as well.

Even when our plastic waste is not being trafficked, there is no good end-of-life solution for it. As soon as plastic is created, the damage has been done. A vast industry exists to pretend that there is a solution while the material is laundered through a baffling array of false solutions, including:

  • Incineration. Burning waste is simply moving landfill into the sky and pumping toxins into the air we breathe, and it is a inefficient way to make energy.
  • Landfill, which leaches toxins and destroys ecosystems. This planetary sepsis is inflicted upon poorer countries. Waste management in the Global South is not just an environmental nuisance – it is an urgent human rights issue for the waste picker in the Philippines, or the worker unsafely pyrolising tyres in Bangladesh.
  • Recycling. Recycling is not a solution. Only a tiny fraction of humanity’s plastic waste has ever been recycled. In fact, there is no such thing as recycling, and there never will be a “circular” process for plastic. All recycling is downcycling, creating a less versatile, weaker plastic that will still come to its end of life and go through one of the above unsatisfactory management options.
  • Bioplastics, which lobbyists suggest will be a quick tech “fix” to our problem. But they usually contain a high percentage of plastics, meaning they have to be separated to be disposed of. The carbon toll is just as big, and often bigger, than that for plastics.


When it comes to plastic waste, there are no easy solutions. We have to acknowledge this. We have to acknowledge the giant mountain outside our very window.

The plastic emergency is already causing quantifiable harms to our own UK population, and to others worldwide. When the UK government said it would refuse to follow its own, Conservative-led EFRA committee and give a roadmap to a ban on plastic waste exports, they were shirking a clear and pressing responsibility.

MPs Surprised and Disappointed as Government Rejects Key Plastic Waste Recommendations

Until they take they take that responsibility, there will not be sufficient momentum to move towards the solutions. They include:

  • redesign, especially redesigning business models to cut out waste and exploitation
  • reduction, e.g. banning intentionally-added microplastics
  • extended producer responsibility, meaning producers take responsibility over their use – where this does not simply further enable the sham recycling industry
  • reuse, e.g. deposit return schemes
  • alternative materials, e.g. using wood for construction
  • telling the truth to consumers about the plastic problem
  • a just transition for workers in these industries into new infrastructure jobs created by the above

see p. 18, Zero Waste Cities - Masterplan

It is up to us as citizens to point at the mountain at our window. It is up to us to start raising the alarm. Government and industry cannot fail to listen when the health and longevity of every person on Earth is at stake.