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Nothing but waste: The past, present and future of plastic promotional products

11.06.2018 14:16 Uhr PSI
Nothing but waste: The past, present and future of plastic promotional products | Nothing but waste: The past, present and future of plastic promotional products

Nothing but waste: The past, present and future of plastic promotional products

Every year since 1972, 5 June has been elevated to World Environment Day. This year’s day of action took aim at plastic waste, which threatens to suffocate our Blue Planet. The EU is in the process of banning certain plastic products. What are the implications for promotional products made from plastics – and thus for about a third of the entire promotional products industry?

Spoiler alert: you won’t be reading anything about the demise of plastic promotional products here. But you will hear about the current state of affairs and changes so far-reaching that not just the producers and importers of plastic products used in advertising but also their distributors and users should really start tackling them.

It goes without saying that articles about prosperity and about how amazing we all feel are much more pleasant. There are plenty of choices in our market for that kind of writing. This space, though, has always aspired to thinking outside the rose-coloured box and engaging in a discourse about our industry – even if it might hurt a bit at times.

In Part 1 of our multi-part review, we’ll close in on the actual issue: What is this about? Debates over plastics are rarely focused on facts, even though reviewing facts and arguments should be the first step. Here’s a consolidated overview of the situation.

The dimensions of plastic waste ...

... are staggering. We produce 26 million metric tonnes in the EU alone. Every year. Approximately 260 million tonnes of plastics are produced worldwide annually. Ten per cent of that end up in our fields, rivers and oceans. Every year!

At the end of the day, even though the Germans are world champion waste separators, not even a third of all plastic waste is recycled there. The remainder is incinerated, deposited in landfills or dumped directly into the environment by consumers.

Our oceans suffocate on plastic waste, which has become concentrated in five drifting, swirling carpets referred to as trash vortexes or gyres. The dimensions are enormous. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Ocean alone is estimated to measure anywhere from 700,000 to 15,000,000 km².

In the most extreme scenario, this garbage gyre alone approaches the vastness of Russia (17,100,000 km²), the world’s largest country. And even at the very low end of the estimated range, it would still cover an area larger than France (643,801 km²), the largest country in the EU. Here’s the problem: the gyres are growing.

Microplastics: The confetti effect

According to the EU, up to 85 per cent of all the waste generated on Europe’s beaches consists of disposable plastics. Products intended for one-time use make up half of that.

Don’t worry (although these numbers are scary enough in their own right), we won’t be diving into a deep scientific discussion of the problem. We’ll just barely scratch the surface, and thus the microplastics. We’ve talked about the issue before in the context of our musings on disposable cups, as some readers may remember.

People with a penchant for order are freaked out by any kind of confetti. The tiny pieces, after all, migrate every which way and into the smallest of crevices – not to be found again for what can be years.


Something similar is happening with microplastics. Except that the particles persist for centuries, having already found their way back into our bodies as we act simultaneously as consumers and polluters. Some background to help you understand the issue: “microplastics” is the umbrella term for plastic particles ranging from 5 mm down to tiny invisible crumbs in the nanometre range.

By now, these particles have spread to every corner of the globe. Even to the Arctic. Already, up to one in 10 “grains of sand” at our beaches are actually grains of plastic. Birds and fish alike die when they ingest plastics.

Return to sender: The Food Chain

But not every fish dies from eating the particles. Many meet their fate sooner, as they’re caught and, literally, fed into our food chain. Microplastics can now be found in all ocean dwellers, reaching our plates in the form of fish, fish sticks, crustaceans and shellfish, be it freshly caught or frozen.

Microplastics are floating in beer and mineral water, and they’re an unwanted ingredient in salt, honey and other foods. Evaporation and rain make it possible. Ingesting large quantities of microplastics is fatal for animals. For humans, no reliable studies exist thus far.

Growing rejection

Against this backdrop, and given the inevitably increasing publicity surrounding the topic, it’s no wonder that political pressure and public opinion have cast an ominous shadow on plastics. All that despite the fact that, per se, plastics aren’t good or bad.

Part of the blame for their lousy image goes to the industry itself, which – a strengthening, often polarising headwind be damned – kept churning out the highly profitable nonrefillable bottles, always counting on the thoughtless and convenience-focussed consumer to gobble them up.

In the meantime, however, the consumer mindset has changed – slowly but measurably. Clues: the growing number of “plastic-free” online shops and packaging-free physical retail stores along with an impressive array of websites whose views on plastics range from critical to hostile.

The EU plastics ban

Additional pressure is created by the European Commission and its pending “plastics ban”. The EU is planning to prohibit certain kinds of plastic products, including plastic dishes, plastic straws, cotton swabs and balloon holders, while ratcheting up recycling rates.

In the next instalment of our report on plastics, we’ll examine what exactly is behind all that, how much sense these plans make, how effective they are, what could be done better and how this will impact the promotional products industry.

Credits: German Environment Agency

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