Plastic: friend or foe?
Sir David Attenborough recently called for the world to act on plastic, after witnessing its impacts on marine life during the filming of his latest stunning TV series Blue Planet II. And when we see images of a turtle chasing a plastic bag, a pelican feeding its chick a plastic meal, or a blanket of plastic trash choking the ocean, it’s easy to appreciate why people are increasingly concerned about plastic and its impacts.
While it’s heartening to see this rising desire for change, the solutions put forward to the problem of plastic waste are often piecemeal. Recent initiatives such as those by Procter & Gamble and Ecover to create bottles from ocean plastic are important, but it’s even better if plastic never gets into the ocean in the first place. Commitments by big companies such as Coca-Cola to make bottles containing a higher percentage of recycled plastic represent an excellent step forward, but we also need to design plastic packaging to be reused and recycled. Deposit return schemes may be beneficial and it’s right that we look at evidence of their effectiveness and explore how we can design them to complement existing infrastructure.
Don’t demonise plastics
Nor is cutting back on plastics always the best solution. We need to consider the context. Plastics are amazing – versatile, durable molecular masterpieces – and there are good reasons why they are used so widely. Take health care, for example. Most disposable medical items – insulin pens, IV tubes, inhalation masks, and so on – use plastic as a core component because it is sterile and reduces the risk of infection. Without plastics, our food waste problem and the associated environmental impacts would be much worse. Plastic packaging preserves and protects food. According to the US Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), plastic film extends the shelf life of a cucumber from three days to 14, for example.
Before joining WRAP in 2006, I worked for BP for 17 years, mostly on the manufacture of plastics. I was amazed by the versatility of polymers and how this helped to make them the material of choice in a wide array of markets. But the problem with plastics is that the very things that make them useful – their versatility, low cost, light weight and durability – also make them ubiquitous and hard to dispose of. Towards the end of my time at BP, I got interested in the environmental impact of plastics. So I was intrigued when the opportunity arose to join WRAP to work on plastics recycling – my first job with the organisation. What appealed to me then as now about the way WRAP approaches this kind of challenge is that it brings everyone together – fast-moving consumer goods companies, retailers, manufacturers, reprocessors, local government and citizens – to collaborate to create sustainable supply chains.
Create circular solutions
What we need are circular solutions embracing how we select polymers, how we design plastic packaging, how we label it so people know it can be recycled, how we collect it for recycling, how we sort and reprocess it, and how we put them back into the economy, ensuring that recycling plastic is economically viable. This isn’t just about keeping plastics out of our oceans and off our streets, it’s about using our precious resources sustainably. It takes 75 per cent less energy to make a plastic bottle from recycled plastic compared with using virgin materials.
In my early days with WRAP, we made good progress working with government and industry, working together to create circular solutions – for example, enabling plastic milk bottles to be recycled back into bottles. But this work is not finished. WRAP is still working to create a sustainable plastics supply chain. On the design front, we are working with brands, retailers and manufacturers to improve recyclability and rationalise packaging formats to focus on those for which there is a steady end market.
There has been significant progress in the collection of plastic bottles. Nearly all UK local authorities (99 per cent) now collect plastic bottles for recycling at the kerbside. As a result, the recycling rate for plastic bottles has increased dramatically from just 5 per cent in 2000 to 58 per cent in 2016. Of course, we want to go further. There are gaps in consumers’ knowledge and behaviours. Recycling is increasingly the norm, but many consumers do not realise that plastic bottles from the bathroom and under the sink can be recycled, for example. And there are gaps in provision, especially for recycling ‘on the go’. We need more recycling bins in public spaces where waste arises, as well as to encourage consumers to recycle outside the home.
Drive change at scale
Earlier this year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released its report, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics which attempts to reconcile the approaches of industry and activists. The report had input from environmental groups such as Ocean Conservancy as well as companies such as Unilever. This is the kind of systems thinking that drives real change at scale, and which we look forward to seeing more of in the future. We anticipate that the publication of a new EU dedicated plastics strategy, currently being prepared, will help Europe improve recycling, cut marine litter, and remove potentially dangerous chemicals from the supply chain, providing further impetus for change.
Renewed concern about waste plastics presents us with a fantastic opportunity to mobilise and motivate fast-moving consumer goods companies, retailers, manufacturers, reprocessors, local government and citizens to come together to create a truly sustainable plastics supply chain that benefits the economy and the environment. It also represents an opportunity for the UK Government and devolved administrations to put in place the policy mechansims that will really make a difference. The solutions lie in convening all the relevant players and working collaboratively to identify and implement practical solutions. Let’s do it together!
Peter Maddox is Director of Government Programmes at WRAP
OCEAN PLASTIC: DID YOU KNOW?
Research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology shows that ten river systems, located in heavily populated regions where littering is common, carry more than 90 per cent of the plastic from land that ends up in the oceans. Two are in Africa (the Nile and the Niger) while the other eight are in Asia (the Ganges, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Haihe, Pearl, Mekong and Amur). One key challenge is to develop waste management infrastructure and tackle waste behaviours in the countries through which these rivers flow to prevent waste getting into the ocean.
- Over 35 million plastic bottles are used every day in the UK. Of these, 16 million are not recycled.
- If a year’s worth of the UK’s un-recycled plastic bottles were placed end to end, they’d reach around the world 31 times, covering just over 780,000 miles.