The Plastics Dilemma: Towards a Sustainable Future
Plastic was first invented in 1862 to substitute ivory (as elephants were becoming extinct) and meet the growing demand for consumer goods like billiard balls, tortoiseshell combs, and other everyday objects. Fast forward to modern times, and plastics have become such a crucial part of our daily lives, that we can’t seem to be able to get rid of them.
From healthcare to transportation, clothing, insulation, food preparation and packaging, plastics play a central role in our global economy and the way we live our daily lives. We have also become very good at mass producing them. In 2015 alone, the world produced more than 380 million tonnes of plastic.
While these remarkable materials have been incredibly useful, our reliance on them has huge environmental impacts – including that they linger in our environment and oceans forever.
It’s estimated that during the 2010s, about 80% of plastic waste ended up being thrown away in landfills, burned, or leaked into the environment instead of being properly managed. And every year, plastic production, and usage releases about 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is about 4% of the total amount of carbon dioxide that the world can afford to emit. To put that in perspective, it's roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide that Germany, the United Kingdom, and France produce together.
We’ve become too accustomed to using plastics for just about everything. But reducing plastic pollution does not necessarily mean we need to change the way we live our lives. Instead, products need to be made of different materials, and, when using plastics, we need to think about how we can maximise the life of products and design them to allow us to reuse the materials.
So, how can we protect the environment and keep our modern lifestyle?
To reduce plastic pollution and protect the environment while achieving emissions reductions goals, it is critical to address the plastic waste issue. As we discussed in our Future of Plastics webinar, there are various opportunities and approaches to handle plastic waste:
- Upcycling: plastic waste can be broken down into valuable chemicals, providing an opportunity to produce new chemicals that can be used in construction and water purification, for example.
- Biobased raw materials: research is being conducted to find materials that can replace plastics while offering the benefits of reducing carbon emissions, being easier to recycle and being biodegradable.
- Growing the plastic waste management industry: the growth of plastic products indicates that a higher focus on finding sustainable solutions to manage its waste is crucial.
Optimising recycling technologies is crucial to ensure that we don’t use any more of Earth’s resources than necessary. There are different approaches to upscale plastic recycling, including:
- Mechanical recycling: involving the physical recovery of plastic materials to allow for their reuse. Currently, mechanical recycling can end up compromising the material’s quality and improving our recycling processes could produce higher value materials.
- Chemical recycling: involving the conversion of plastics into their raw materials, from which new plastics can be created. Such processes offer the possibility of a circular system where plastics can be infinitely recycled. While costs are not yet always competitive, the area is advancing as technologies continue to develop.
Transitioning to a circular economy for plastics is crucial to ensure we reduce plastic waste and carbon emissions. Improving recycling technologies is not enough, and regulatory and market measures are needed to ensure companies come forward to reduce their environmental impact.
Measures like extended producer responsibility schemes, where producers internalise the environmental costs associated with their products' lifecycle, can incentivise companies to reduce their environmental impact. Developing strategies tailored for each country’s context is advisable to increase community acceptance and corporate engagement.
These approaches, combined with new bioplastics materials, data analytics, and responsible investing, can contribute to addressing the plastic waste problem.
Isolated solutions cannot fix the plastics problem
It's important for countries to work together to tackle the problem of plastic pollution. In May 2022, the United Nations began talks to create an international agreement to deal with plastic, from the moment it is produced to when it is thrown away. This is a hopeful step towards a strong global response to the problem, accepting that different regions will need different solutions. Financial help and support to improve infrastructure will be needed, especially in low- and middle-income countries, to help reduce plastic pollution and manage waste in a sustainable way.
By addressing plastic waste, improving recycling, taking advantage of business opportunities and dealing more effectively with plastic waste we can ensure that plastic - a material invented in part to protect species like elephants and turtles - can play its part in a sustainable future.
During recycling week, reflect on various approaches to handle plastic waste, optimising recycling technologies, and the need for business opportunities, regulatory measures, and international cooperation to address the plastic waste problem effectively.