Plastic: are we addicted to it?

By Chiara Muzzi

In spite of efforts, single use plastic items such as plastic bottles, remain a plight for wildlife and the environment.  

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Photo credit: Paul Williams http://www.IronAmmonitePhotography.com.

Since Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic in 2002, the issue of excessive plastic consumption and its devastating impact on oceans and marine life has gained substantial traction with generally high levels of public support and successes in reducing usage. In 2015, the EU directive established an aim, to reduce plastic carrier bags by halving their use from the 2010 average of 198 bags per EU citizen to 90 bags by the end of 2019, and to 40 by 2025. The directive also plans to eliminate free of charge bags by end of 2018.

The UK has seen a reduction of 85% in single-use plastic bags after the introduction of a 5p charge in October 2015.

Yet, significant challenges remain and plastic bags are a part of the wider issue of plastic pollution.

In January 2017 the European Commission (EC) released a roadmap on Strategy on Plastic in a Circular Economy, and set three objectives:

  1. Decoupling plastics production from virgin fossil feedstock and reducing its life-cycle greenhouse gas impacts.
  2. Improving the economics, quality, and uptake of plastic recycling and reuse.
  3. Reducing plastic leakage into the environment.

Although the fact that there is such a strategy is positive, and the mention of a circular economy is refreshing, environmental organisations argue that the proposal by the EC misses three important sides to the problem:

  1. The need to reduce the use of plastic in favor of reuse and recycling.
  2. It fails to recognise that, as well as a need to raise consumer awareness, producer’s’ responsibility needs to be recognised.
  3. Although the strategy recognises the damage to the oceans by plastic waste, no attempts are made to find a solution to it.

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According to Professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University speaking at the Greens 2017 Congress in Liverpool earlier in the year, there is nothing wrong with plastic itself, but consideration should be given to the uses we make of it. There is a need to rethink the design and the end of life of products. Consider for instance a soft drink bottle that uses red plastic; colored plastic is not impossible to recycle, but its recycling value is much lower than that of clear plastics. Yet, for doubtful marketing reasons, argues Prof Thompson, the product design foresees red colored plastic.

Plastic bottles are one of the main contributors to plastic pollution and wildlife harm in our oceans, yet only around 6.6% of bottles are normally produced from recycled plastic with no reason for it not to raise to 100%.

40% of plastic is produced for single use, which justifies the need for recycling schemes and also points at the need for product design that facilitates a products’ ability to re-enter the production cycle.  

The idea of some proponents to transform plastic into fuel, which Thompson says is possible for certain plastics, would entail a use of energy to a level that would render the effort inefficient. Although some single use products may still need to be burnt rather than recycled. This should be understood at the early design stage so that the appropriate type of plastic – one with a limited or no impact when burnt – could then be selected. The same design consideration should be given to all products, within a framework that passes a responsibility to producers to determine the end of life recycling of their products.

Bioplastic, Professor Thompson states, are not the solution, as there is no such thing as bioplastic. Products such as oxo-degradable plastic, which is often used in farming to cover fields and are meant to disappear over a short period of time, in reality, have no positive environmental impact, and some negative ones.  As reported in a study by Loughborough University for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the impacts include effects on the atmosphere as well as on wildlife. Polyethylene, the University report states, is derived from oil and “when these bags degrade to CO2, they are releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere. Hence they have a more negative environmental impact during this phase of the life cycle compared with disposable bags made from biopolymers, which are derived from renewable biomass sources”.  Moreover, oxo-plastic tends to become fragmented before it starts biodegrading, and this characteristic has raised concerns that “these particles of plastic may be ingested by insects, birds, animals or fish.”

According to Professor Thompson, there is an urgent need for more money to be invested in the research of the social aspects of plastic use and pollution; studies on behavioral change, as much as in the design of products with an end of life in mind. Single use may be unavoidable, but if we wish to take the path for reducing plastic waste in our environment and the oceans, we need to consider recycling and smarter designing.

It can also be argued that research into alternatives to plastic, rather than alternative plastic, may also contribute to a decrease to what is currently an abuse of single use. Although looking at the past is often frowned upon, as a society we may be ready to return, in the future, to paper bags, plastic-free aisles in supermarkets, and bottle deposits schemes. It may serve to reduce the current dependency.

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One response to “Plastic: are we addicted to it?

  1. Pingback: Opinion: Let’s take nature to court | A greener life, a greener world·

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