By Richard Gray, BBC Capital
How much would it cost to switch to plastic alternatives?
Walking along a short section of stony beach, Claire Waluda stoops briefly to pick up something from between the rocks. It is a brightly coloured plastic bottle top – just one of hundreds of bits of plastic that she finds washed ashore on the remote, windswept island of South Georgia.
Located in the south Atlantic, on the fringes of the Antarctic, it is nearly 1,000 miles (1,500km) from the nearest major human settlement. Yet even here Waluda, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey, is finding worrying signs of our throw-away attitude towards plastic. Regularly she finds seals entangled in this debris or albatross chicks coughing up bits of plastic film.
These are just a few examples of the damage our throw-away relationship with plastics is inflicting on the environment. More than 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced worldwide every year by an industry worth nearly $198 billion. Just a fraction of that is recycled while the vast majority is thrown away. Plastic litter now clutters every part of our planet, from remote parts of the Antarctic to the deepest ocean trenches.
High profile campaigns and TV programmes such as the finale of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, where Sir David Attenborough highlighted the problems plastics are causing in the world’s oceans, have led to growing public alarm over the issue. In response to mounting pressure, governments, manufacturers and retailers are beginning to take steps to tackle the tide of plastic waste. But how much will this fundemantal change to the way we buy our goods actually cost?
Many of the companies attempting to tackle the amount of plastic waste generated by their products admit it will eat into their profits. Coca-Cola, for example, produces 38,250 tonnes of plastic packaging in the UK each year and estimates indicate it sells more than 110 billion single-use plastic bottles globally. The company has pledged to double the amount of recycled material in its plastic bottles in the UK and is trialling refillable bottles. Although it refuses to give details, Coca-Cola says these efforts will increase costs.
And even companies that have been dragging their heels will soon have to address the amount of plastic packaging they use. More than 60 countries are introducing legislation aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags and other single use plastic materials. This month, tiny Pacific island nation Vanuatu became the first in the world to ban single use plastic bags, straws and polystyrene food containers.