Last reviewed 30 April 2019
Plastics kick-started the disposable consumer revolution. However, the public is now more worried about plastic’s global environmental impact than climate change. Finding a sustainable solution will be difficult. Jon Herbert reports on a four-pronged strategy which relies on personal responsibility, government policy and businesses taking action.
In the opening decades of the twentieth century, the material world was made of wood, leather, rubber, canvas, plaster, iron, steel, tin and Bakelite. However, conflict is often a catalyst for change.
The answer to World War II’s insatiable demand for resources was the plastics revolution based on little more than “coal, water and air”. It also triggered the modern mass market for endless, low-cost, disposable consumer goods that now not only generate pleasure, wealth, employment but also today’s growing list of worldwide environmental problems.
A “war” to end environmental conflict
Since 2015, however, the plastic dream has become a nightmare and thanks to scientists, and BBC’s Blue Planet II series reporting it, we are now aware that some 60–80% of ocean waste is now non-biodegradable plastic.
In response, the UN has declared a new “war” on single-use plastic. Greenpeace’s 2016 petition for a UK-wide micro-bead plastics ban collected 365,000 signatures as the largest environmental petition ever presented to the Government. The Daily Mail is said to receive more mail about plastic than any other environmental issue, with a reported quote of “beats climate change every time”.
The facts are startling. A 1950 world population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tonnes of plastic; by 2016, seven billion people were generating 320 million tonnes, with a further doubling predicted by 2034.
Every piece of plastic ever produced — unless burned — still exists. A plastic bag used for 15 minutes can take 300 years to disintegrate. Micro-plastic particles are now found in the seas, air, arctic ice, water supplies, food-chains and our own bodies. They are in mascara, coffee cups, sea salt, honey, beer and even dust in our houses which we swallow with food.
Tyres — circa 60% plastic — shed plastic fibres which are part of the eight million tonnes of unabated plastic fragments that go down to the seas each year. Plastic is found in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species and kills 100,000 marine mammals and turtles, plus a million seabirds, annually.
In March 2019, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reported that Coca-Cola used three million tonnes of plastic packaging in 2017 — roughly the equivalent weight of 15,000 blue whales! Mars, Nestle, Danone, Colgate, Unilever and Burberry have also disclosed their plastic packaging figures. However, Coca-Cola is now one of many companies working in partnerships to introduce bottle-deposit return schemes and has pledged to recycle a used bottle or can for every one sold by 2030.
Cosmetics and micro-plastics
Certain cosmetics are a major culprit. Between 0.01% and 4.1% of marine micro-plastic pollution comes from rinse-off products used to help exfoliation; some 680 tonnes go down the drain annually from face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels. They degrade slowly and can transport toxic chemicals into marine organisms.
Many natural alternatives are available; Colgate-Palmolive phased out microbeads in 2014, followed by Boots and Unilever in 2015. That still leaves sun-cream and lipsticks.
Another 130,000 tonnes of plastic waste comes from paint on buildings, plus some 80,000 tonnes from road paint. In addition, pollution is released from textiles each time they are washed.
Back to a different future
However, the race is now on to banish plastics to the past without returning to the pre-plastic days of the 1930s. Many industrial countries are fighting back with a four-pronged strategy:
export less low-grade plastic waste to other countries.
There will also be new laws and international treaties, plus government funding for innovations, developing a reprocessing sector and de-risking early investments. The Government plans tighter single-use plastic regulations; the EU will outlaw 10 single-use plastic products from 2021, forcing Member States to recycle 90% of plastic bottles by 2025.
In addition, there will be a positive role for plastic waste. A Green Alliance report for the Circular Economy Task Force (CETF) says recycled plastics could provide 71% of the raw material needed by UK manufacturers of plastic packaging and products. CETF chair, Dr Colin Church, adds: “Tackling this will require action from all of us — designers, manufacturers, retailers, consumers and resource managers.”
However, the Alliance is also critical that the UK exports two-thirds of its recovered plastic and only recycles 9% on home shores. A secondary market could recycle a further two million tonnes.
Talks have so far not produced a solution. In early March, a UN environmental conference in Nairobi agreed non-binding single-use plastic cuts up to 2030, though with low voluntary pledges. But delegates claimed the US blocked an ambitious “by 2025” goal to reduce plastic pollution at source as well as downstream because large oil firms are investing heavily in petrochemicals tied to plastic production.
Meanwhile, there is confusion on the doorstep with at least 39 different sets of local authority domestic recycling rules. These will be reviewed to meet a 50% target by 2020 and 75% by 2035.
Contamination — often with food waste — means plastics going to landfill or incineration. There are further problems where people don’t segregate waste carefully and all recycling is collected in one bin.
The future will see consistent labelling, firms paying to recycling plastics they produce, long-life product designs, more repair and reuse, a tax on packaging using less than 30% recycled plastic, no plastic packaging where there are alternatives and higher-quality waste plastic exports.
Exporting plastic waste
China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand in 2021 are halting imports. Other countries, however, see plastic waste recycling as lucrative. Many Chinese recyclers have moved abroad to use cheap waste before re-exporting recycled pellets back to China. Environment Agency figures show that in the 12 months to October 2018, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of recovered plastic packaging.
There is also great interest in two basic classes of plastics decomposed by bacteria. Bioplastics come from renewable raw materials like corn starch; plastics made from petrochemicals contain bio-degradable additives to encourage biodegradation.
This splits further into oxo-biodegradable and hydro-biodegradable process routes. Both emit CO2; hydro-biodegradable can also release the powerful greenhouse gas methane. But where synthetic plastics may take 1000 years to decompose, biodegradable plastics do so in three to six months.
Green Alliance Chief Executive Shaun Spiers wants the Government’s 2042 avoidable plastic waste deadline brought forward by “at least” 10 years. “If they are avoidable then it can’t be beyond the wit of man to come up with something to avoid them in less than 25 years’ time,” he says.
Companies take action
Many other companies are already acting. HP and Ikea have joined an initiative to use plastics in new packaging and products, that would otherwise seep into the sea. Ikea will remove all single-use plastic products from its stores by 2020 and design all products to closed-loop principles by 2030. In 2017, HP unveiled new ink cartridge prototypes made from recycled plastic bottles from Haiti.
Plastics have moved from being the universal solution provider to an environmental scourge in less than half a decade. The Government is introducing tougher legislation to cut out single-use plastic. However, there is much that businesses can do in their own interest to make early changes.
The strategic approach has four elements. The first is to minimise plastic use. The second is enhanced recycling — with plastic-use cost penalties for companies. Innovations in alternative materials is the third. The fourth priority is ending an unstable reliance on exporting low grade waste for recycling overseas.