Imagine yourself on a Canadian fishing vessel in the waters off New Brunswick on a cold November day. Now imagine your surprise, when in a crate of captured lobsters, you discover one with Pepsi’s logo tattooed on its claw.
Ocean litter has reached massive proportions, with estimates of up to 13 million tonnes of plastic finding their way into the oceans every year. The problem is evident, but will re-thinking the system of production of plastics prove to become an equally evident solution to a time-sensitive, global issue?
Plastics: how did we get here?
While synthetic plastic was discovered by scientists in the 19th century, World War II changed the demand for and frequency of use of plastic. In his book “American Plastic: a cultural history” Jeffrey Meikle, cultural historian and professor at University of Texas, Austin, explains how due to shortages of other materials, different forms of plastics started to become used in the military.
Public opinion then shifted from regarding plastics as a substitute substance or an aesthetic indulgence to accepting it as a fully functional, practical and modern material. Saving time and convenience became attractive, and were marketed aggressively.
Lightweight, flexible and durable, plastics have proved useful to humanity in industries such as automotive, medicine, agriculture, in the production of home furniture and electronics, and many more. Plastics are difficult to avoid, and so is the plastic pollution. Improperly disposed of plastic finds its way to the marine environment, litters towns and cities, and can leak into the soil and water.
How can we get out?
Plastics production is expected to double by 2036, which can be a cause for alarm, provided the status quo of plastics production: 90% of plastics are derived from virgin fossil fuels, putting a strain on the environment and generating carbon dioxide emissions.
The situation is also dire when a plastic product reaches the end of its product life. It has been estimated that to date, up to 91% of all plastics created have not been recycled. This translates into enormous waste generation.
But what if we could avoid tapping into untouched fossil fuel reserves, and minimize waste at the same time? What if we knew that a plastic water bottle, or a container holding strawberries, are destined to live a long life of utility, even after being discarded by the consumer.
Circular Plastics Economy
There are those who find that this can become the reality if we shift to a circular economy defined as an economy “where the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and the generation of waste minimized.’’
Nature itself serves as an inspiration for this concept. In nature, waste is continuously re-introduced into the “economy” (ecosystems), and any living creature which has reached the end of its life serves as a resource for the system.
With entities such as the European Union supporting circular plastics economy, eco-minded consumers may find themselves feeling optimistic. But there is strong indication that the technology is still not advanced enough, and this is one of the factors which can delay the meaningful shift to a circular plastics economy. Even in developed countries, consumers are not yet able to recycle all forms of plastic.
For the plastic that can be recycled, serious limitations still exist. Jamie Garcia, a scientist at the multinational technology giant IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) explains that “[Plastic recycling is] limited because plastic’s mechanical properties degrade each time it’s melted down and remoulded. For example, it can lose its flexibility and become brittle, become hazy instead of transparent, and can become discoloured.”
Developments in the industry
At the same time, there are developments in making plastic biodegradable. Carbios, for example, a chemicals company in France, is presently piloting improved biodegradable plastic.
“The ultimate goal of the New Plastics Economy is to design an economy, where plastic packaging never becomes waste. And to do that, we need every player in the chain to change the way they do things.”
Nevertheless, as pointed out by several assessments, including a report of the UN Environment Programme, biodegradable plastics do not necessarily deliver on their promising name. Many will break down only at very high temperatures. This, combined with lack of buoyancy, means that if plastic, even biodegradable kind, ends up in the ocean, it is going to sink and not break down.
Dame Ellen MacArthur, of the namesake British foundation which champions circular economy, explains in a National Geographic video that, – “The ultimate goal of the New Plastics Economy is to design an economy, where plastic packaging never becomes waste. And to do that, we need every player in the chain to change the way they do things.”
This is a challenge, but also an opportunity. The players include the consumers and companies that use the raw material. To reap the benefits of the endlessly recyclable plastic the consumer needs to properly dispose of the plastic first, and there must to be companies willing to repurpose and reutilize this plastic. At the same time, companies and consumers are becoming more eco-conscious, influencing one another and the plastic market landscape.
The challenges are not to be taken lightly, but there is an indication that technology is advancing. For instance, Jamie Garcia of IBM is credited with discovering new polymers with properties which would render plastic technically recyclable hundreds of times. There are also efforts underway to recover the energy contents of plastics, i.e. turn no longer needed plastics into fuel.
What can be done right now?
Before these and other technological advances become reality, however, it may be wisest to improve waste collection systems, particularly in the developing world and coastal areas, as the UN Environment Programme suggests.
At the same time, consumers can inform themselves on which types of plastic is truly recycled where they live and avoid plastics which their municipality is unable to recycle, reuse or recover as energy.
Consumers are important actors in the economy. If you wish to support a circular plastics economy, the first step is one of the most crucial: to dispose properly of plastic after use.