It’s a widely-acknowledged fact that Australia has a plastic waste problem. Straws are killing sea turtles, shopping bags are taking centuries to break down, and disposable coffee cups may well be the end of the planet. We all know this—that things are bad, and getting worse—but it can be hard to appreciate just how desperate the situation really is without some hard numbers to back it up.
So here’s a hard number: according to a new report by Credit Suisse, “There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, in 2050."
The global financial analyst has issued an ominous warning against "the impending plasticide", and labelled plastic packaging as one of the most serious environmental challenges facing the world, according to SBS. It is predicted that Australia will have to introduce a “plastic tax” within the next few years in order to address the problem.
The issue, Credit Suisse suggest, stems in part from China’s recent tightening of contamination standards and the country’s refusal to keep taking on large portions of Australia’s recyclable waste. At the end of last year China announced that they would be banning the import of 24 types of refuse from waste exporting countries, Greenpeace reported. The most recent national data shows that in the year 2016-17, Australia exported more than 4.2 million tonnes of recycled materials in total—more than 1.2 million of which went to China. Now that the regulations have been tightened, 99 percent of the waste materials that Australia would usually ship to the Asian nation have been affected.
“This has left Australia in a position with a lot of recyclables, no market, and 'What do they do with it?' is really the question,” said Dr Trevor Thornton, lecturer in hazardous-materials management at Deakin University. "We've got to develop the market so businesses purchase the recyclables and use it to make the products, rather than using virgin plastics.”
When Trevor says “virgin plastics” he’s talking about newly-manufactured materials that haven’t been made into a product yet. The Credit Suisse report, cited by Waste Management Review, predicted that the Australian government would introduce a tax on these virgin plastics as a “reactionary policy measure”. They also lamented, however, that these policy initiatives probably won’t take hold until 2020-21.
“Our headline view is that things will get worse before they get better,” the report declared. “Plastic packaging has become one of the most intractable environmental challenges of our age.
“To curtail the situation in the short run, it is a matter of when, not if, we see reactionary policy measures.”
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.