When attending a discussion on the path towards a plastic-free future, you probably don’t expect to be told that all plastics are not necessarily bad. But that is exactly what I told guests at a parliamentary dinner discussion in the House of Commons, organised by the IPT, on 14th January this year.
I said it then and I’ll say it again: Plastics are not all evil. They are wonderfully engineered, miracle materials that have a huge range of desirable properties. They have allowed us to be healthy, to travel easily, to communicate freely and to eat exotic foods from overseas. Nowadays, it is hard to find any aspect of modern life where plastics don’t play an important role. And all of this is delivered very cost effectively, which is one of the problems.
Plastics are essentially very cheap for what they do and this has led to them being used in some rather silly ways. But there are also other, more complex, problems associated with plastics and getting the genie back into the bottle is not going to be easy.
The first and greatest challenge is arguably us – human beings – as consumers. Despite our recognition that plastic pollution in the oceans and the fields around us is a bad thing, very few people are actually willing to change, let alone pay, to wean ourselves off plastics. But this is the first step on the ladder to achieving a so-called “circular economy” where materials can be reused and recycled effectively. If we, humans, do not do the right thing with plastics from the outset then it does not matter how clever the logistics or recycling processes are that we have in place; they won’t be enough on their own to solve the problem in the first place.
Whilst on the subject of recycling and recovery, we are already using incredibly complex and often onerous schemes that often don’t fit into our daily lives easily. Take kerbside recovery for example: this requires households to sort, wash and segregate plastics from other materials, like metals or cardboard, and even then some plastics may or may not be taken for recycling depending on the collection units and the instructions they have received. Plus, very often, these collections may also lose a lot of plastic and packaging in the road during pick-up, so even when households do all the right things, plastic still escapes into the environment it shouldn’t be in.
To solve these issues, we need to put in place common approaches and up-to-date technology that makes it easier for people to “do the right thing” and have plastics circling efficiently in the marketplace. Today, we speak a lot about compostable plastics being a solution, but that only works if they are composted in special facilities (of which the UK hardly has any), otherwise we can actually end up causing more problems: the contamination of non-degradable plastic streams and CO2/methane generation being just two of the core issues. Standardisation is desperately needed to clarify what “degradable” actually is.
There are two other core problems that we need to overcome as well. The first is education – education about the environment, but also education about plastics in general. For instance, there is a common misconception that all bio-based plastics are biodegradable and all fossil origin plastics are not. But this isn’t true. There’s also the myth that biodegradable plastics will degrade if they escape into the environment. This isn’t true either. It is misunderstandings like these that can drive bad behaviour, albeit unintentionally, and make the problem worse.
The second problem we face is being open and honest about the alternatives to plastics because we need to be very careful we don’t just bat the problem down the road. Recent coverage of plastic pollution in our oceans, for example, is great for bringing attention to the issue. But, as history shows us, it doesn’t necessarily offer up any realistic solutions. If we swap plastic straws for paper ones, there is a lot of evidence to show that paper is actually worse for the environment if it is not sourced, manufactured, used and disposed of responsibly. The same goes for glass. It may be inert in the environment, but that doesn’t mean it is harmless. Plus, as it is much heavier than plastic, we have to think about how it impacts on fuel efficiency and increases emissions per unit of sale. Glass also needs cleaning and repurposing correctly and it is more vulnerable to failure.
So, before we assume all plastics are bad, we need to look again at the bigger environmental picture and develop a well-thought out approach to how we will deal with plastics as a valuable resource alongside the use of possible substitute materials. This approach will require a focus on education, technology and, very likely, fiscal policies to drive the process forward. And the real question will be: how far are we willing to go, and can we take the rest of the world with us?
Words by Professor Kerry Kirwan Head of Sustainable Materials and Manufacturing, WMG, University of Warwick