Breaking the plastic wave

As discarded face masks and litter from beach barbeques make its way into the English Channel, we seem to be making little progress in tackling the menace of ocean plastics. Caroline Hand explores plans to eliminate the problem.

A new report, Breaking the Plastic Wave by the Pew Trusts and Systemiq, predicts that if we continue with “business as usual”, there will be 50kg of plastic for every metre of shoreline, and the shocking prophecy that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea, will be close to coming true.

This report does not downplay the many excellent initiatives by businesses and the Government to reduce plastic waste (the WRAP Plastics Pact being one example — see www.wrap.org.uk/content/the-uk-plastics-pact). Manufacturers have been replacing virgin with recycled plastic, retailers are introducing refill services and Governments are banning single-use items, such as straws and stirrers.

The problem is that these schemes are generally confined to high-income countries, whereas, the bulk of the ocean plastic is coming from countries without adequate waste collection services. The current schemes are only predicted to reduce plastic leakage into the ocean worldwide by 7%.

Despite beginning with such a gloomy assessment, this new report is a very positive and hopeful contribution to the war on plastic waste. It sets out an eight-point plan which would decouple plastic manufacture from economic growth, showing how to get the necessary “plastic utility” for a larger world population from the same amount of plastic that we are using today. Its final goal is to reduce rates of annual land-based plastic leakage into the ocean by about 80% below projected levels by 2040.

The key feature of this plan is that it is a circular economy solution which overhauls the entire system of plastic manufacture, use, recycling and disposal. All of the different elements must be in place if we are to succeed in achieving the goal.

The System Change Scenario

Under the System Change Scenario proposed in the report, the following reductions could be achieved, compared with a “business as usual” baseline under which the flow of plastic into the ocean triples by 2040.

  • 30% of plastic demand is reduced;

  • 17% is substituted with other materials, such as coated paper;

  • 20% is recycled;

  • 23% is disposed of; and only

  • 10% remains mismanaged.

It is no surprise that the most cost-effective option is to reduce the demand for plastic, so this should be the priority, especially in high-income countries. Not only does this keep plastic out of the ocean, but it also reduces greenhouse gas emissions from plastic manufacture. There are several ways of reducing demand, of which the best, according to the report, is to provide new delivery models. This is already happening as supermarkets introduce “plastic-free aisles” and cleaning products are supplied in refillable containers.

Substitution is not as effective an option as reduction, but there is a place for reducing some single-use plastic packaging with, for example, compostable paper.

More recycling

At present, only 15% of plastic is recycled. The report does not advocate recycling all plastic waste due to the technical and economic limitations but makes the case that a much higher percentage could be recycled. The authors of the report favour mechanical recycling over chemical conversion, which has not been proved at scale and has higher costs, energy requirements and GHG emissions.

Problematic plastics

The most problematic wastes are flexible and multi-material plastics which are difficult or impossible to recycle. Flexible packaging (bags, films, pouches, etc) account for 47% of the mass of “leaked” plastic, and multilayer and multimaterial plastics (condiment sachets, nappies, drinks cartons, etc) account for 25%: a disproportionate share of the total. These offer the highest potential for reduction — around 26 million tonnes per year. Many food businesses in the UK had already started to cut back on these. For example, restaurants were switching to refillable sauce bottles instead of sachets, and coffee shops were encouraging customers to bring reusable cups. Sadly, there has recently been a (perhaps unavoidable) move back to single-use plastics on hygiene grounds, as restaurants seek to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

The other products with a high potential for reduction are carrier bags and business-to-business packaging.

If these products cannot be replaced by reusable alternatives, the plastic can be made more recyclable by sticking to a single polymer, labelling it and eliminating dyes and additives.

A worldwide perspective

The priorities for middle- and low-income countries, in terms of plastic reduction, are different from those in the West. In Asia, the greatest need is for communities to have access to an effective waste collection and disposal service, but this appears to be an insurmountable goal. If the plastics problem were to be solved by waste management alone, worldwide, it would mean connecting 500,000 more people to collection services every day until 2040.

Businesses in Europe can help by ceasing to export waste to developing nations. Exported wastes which add to our own “recycling” statistics are too often mismanaged, and their reprocessing takes up infrastructure capacity, which might be better employed to manage the importing countries’ own wastes. The reduction in waste exports would have to be achieved through investment in additional infrastructure in the UK.

Multinational companies could also help to fund collection and recycling schemes in low-income countries.

Another realistic suggestion is to increase the value of plastic waste so that people in poorer countries have more incentive to collect it. This is already being done by the charity Plastic Bank which pays people for the items of plastic waste that they bring to a collection point (such as a local school or church). The collectors are paid in dollars via an online account which they can access on their mobile phones, and the overall scheme uses blockchain so that the plastic can be traced. It is marketed as “Social Plastic” and bought at a premium by manufacturers to help achieve their sustainability and CSR objectives.

Microplastics

Most efforts to stem the tide of ocean plastic, seek to prevent discarded consumer packaging from entering the ocean. However, 11% of the total leakage consists of microplastics, primarily from tyres, textiles, pellets and personal care products. While the use of microbeads in skincare products has now been banned in both Europe and the USA, little progress has been made to tackle tyre wear, which is predicted to remain a problem even if the system change scenario is implemented. Consumers can help by choosing more durable tyres and adopting eco-driving techniques.

Is it really feasible?

This plan is based on existing technology but there are economic and governmental barriers to overcome if the potential reductions in plastic leakage are to be achieved.

“It is not the lack of technical solutions that is preventing us from addressing plastic pollution, but rather inadequate regulatory frameworks, business models, and funding mechanisms. The incentives are not always in place to scale up changes fast enough.”

And again:

“Although these changes are feasible, they are unlikely to materialise unless governments create significant incentives for more sustainable business models and remove the cost advantage that virgin plastic feedstock has over recycled materials.”

The plastics industry is regarded as a “safe investment”, whereas, investment in new delivery models or recycling infrastructure is viewed as more risky. One possible solution is to incorporate “plastic risk” into financial and environmental, social, and governance assessments, in recognition that the environmental harm associated with the plastic industry has financial implications for society.

Both the full report and summary are free to download from the Pew Charitable Trust website.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation endorses the report and has published its own summary and comments at plastics.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org.