With large garbage patches of plastic growing in the oceans, the ecological impact of our oil addiction is now a major crisis. And it’s also starting to impact on human health, with particles of plastic finding its way into human food chain and water supplies. It’s becoming less the blue planet we inhabit and more the plastic planet.
And the bad news is that this is only for openers. Some plastics can take centuries to biodegrade completely (leaching chemicals into the environment as they do so). So even if we ceased production of them tomorrow, that still leaves a huge toxic legacy to deal with. In many respects its proving the parable of the lily pond….just on a planetary scale!
So how do we deal with this crisis? Well firstly, by recognising what has gone wrong. With sustainability we often point to the waste pyramid. Which runs Reduce, then Reuse, then Recycle, then Recover (typically this step involves incineration). Then and only then do we consider disposal (in a landfill not the oceans!).
The trouble is that for far too long we’ve had it all backwards. We chuck stuff in landfills (or flush it down the drains, out of site out of mind). Then when the landfills fill up, or we realise that chucking out certain types of plastic and leaving them to leach chemicals is not a good idea, we look at incineration. When the NIMBY’s whinge and nobody wants an incinerator in their backyard, only then have we looked at recycling.
But plastics aren’t always easy to recycle. Some of the thermosetting types are extremely difficult to recycle. And unlike metals (where there’s a strong cash incentive to recycle), the low value of plastics means it often costs more than the original cost of production to recycle the stuff. To make matters worse, some countries have been outsourcing plastic recycling and its starting to become obvious its just being moved to the developing world and dumped there.
So it’s for these reasons we’re suddenly discovering the need to reduce plastic waste. Countries are looking at urgent bans on plastic straws or introducing reusable bottle schemes. However, it’s a bit late for that! A more fundamental shift away from plastics, or at least certain types of plastic, is what is needed along with changes in how plastic waste is treated. And indeed how waste in general is handled.
Some get disheartened when they hear how much of what they put in the recycle bin doesn’t get recycled. Overall only about 30% of plastics are recycled (v’s 45% for all items). While this runs at about 60% for certain items, such as plastic bottles for example, it falls to as low as 3% with things like plastic film. And that 30% is for the UK (items placed in recycling bins), the worldwide figure is closer to 14% for all plastic waste. So while putting stuff in the recycling bin is definitely a good idea. But a better idea is to reduce the need to recycle at all.
Also a lot of what we call “recycling” when it comes to plastic is actually more “downcycling”. Where for example a plastic drinks bottle could become a plastic bag. Or (to give another example) printing paper can end up as newspaper, then it becomes cardboard, then insulation material, etc. The trouble is that even with recyclable plastics there’s only so many iterations you can go through before it can’t really be recycled anymore.
The problem here is twofold, products with excessive packaging that were never designed with recycling in mind, often including dissimilar plastics that are difficult to recycle. So reducing this by removing or redesigning packaging is an important step.
Of course there exists many different types of plastics, because we use plastics for a wide variety of purposes. Everything from self lubricating bearings, to shopping bags. These tasks require materials with very different properties and hence you end up with a wide variety of materials. That said, in other areas we tend not to use such a diverse range of materials, often for reasons of simple practicality (its not a good idea to mix dissimilar metals for example). But the desire to keep everything throw away cheap with plastics has meant we’ve gotten a little too smart for our own good, hence there is a certain level of over design on the chemistry side that needs to be undone.
And it should be noted at this point that plastics are not as new a material as many think. Since antiquity, we’ve been using natural materials with equivalent properties, such as rubber or hemp. The first “proper” plastics were developed in the mid 19th century. And one of the first to enter widespread use was Celluloid, which can be made from substances such as wood or cotton fibres or hemp.
And composites, aren’t as new as you might think either. All a composite consists of is two materials with dissimilar yet complementary properties. For example using straw and mud to create a durable building material. Or using layers of wood (or bone) of differing properties to produce a better longbow. The recent introduction of composite car bodies is more a return to their use if anything. Many early vehicles (pre-WWI period) had wooden body panels (lacquered or varnished) or body panels made from fibre reinforced resin. These were not only light weight, but also corrosion resistant.
So what went wrong? How did we go from plastics largely derived from plants and natural materials to ones that come from oil and a smorgasbord of chemicals? Well firstly simple economics. Oil became available in large quantities in the 1900’s and the corporations selling it were dreaming up new ways of using it and willing to spend a lot of money on research. In the end they were a little too successful.
And over the same period some of the alternatives to oil became unavailable. For example, hemp got caught up in the whole backlash against Marijuana. In the immediate aftermath of prohibition (which had of course simply increased the problems caused by alcohol rather than solving them!) the religious right needed something else to get in a tizzy over and they chose Marijuana. The manner in which it was banned however, also impacted hemp and its probable vested interests (e.g. Dupont chemicals who held the patent on Nylon fibre) played a role in this.
Hemp could become a key ingredient in bioplastic substitutes. However, it is far from the only ingredient, in theory everything from old banana skins, to grass cuttings or egg shells can be used. All you need is something that will generate those long thin polymer chains, which are surprisingly common in nature. However, the key feature of hemp is it will basically grow anywhere and thus doesn’t mean taking away valuable farm land from food production.
So, there’s no reason why these trends can’t be simply reversed. That said, some of these early “natural” plastics included ingredients that ain’t easy to find, e.g. Shellac (basically beetle dung!). And some early plastics included somewhat toxic substances, e.g. formaldehyde (now a known carcinogen) or Asbestos. Quite a few aren’t easily recyclable.
That said, there are newer plastics available which can be derived from sustainable sources that are easily recyclable and also biodegradable. PLA for example (which is frequently used in 3D printers) or PSM. Even recyclable thermosets are now being developed. Furthermore, most natural or bio-plastic materials are readily combustible and thus can be disposed of by incineration. So long as measures are put in place to ensure collection of the waste and stop it getting into the biosphere, then you still have a fully sustainable life cycle.
So there are solutions, but there is no one silver bullet solution. What is required is returning to that waste pyramid. For example how many times have you been served coffee and everything from cups to the spoons and the single servings of sugar are all disposable. Would you use plastic disposable cutlery at home? How about when driving your car, would you throw away the car every time you got out (then again, it would save on parking fees!). Probably not.
So much as there’s a plastic bag tax in many countries, a similar tax on single use items (say 50p a pop for anything plastic or non-recyclable, 10p for anything biodegradable or easily recycled) would quickly cut down on the waste considerably. Yes some people will complain when it means that a morning coffee now doubles in price (50p for the cup, 50p for the spoon, 10p each for the sugar and topping’s) but eventually businesses would adapt. And people will just have to get into the habit of using reusable items (I carry around a reusable bottle for my morning cuppa and have done so for many years).
This brings us to the topic of reusable containers and packaging. In some countries drinks are still sold in glass containers which are returned to the producer, washed and then refilled. This obviously reduces the levels of plastic waste. However, Life cycle analysis doesn’t always yield a positive result.
Case in point, one of the very first uses of LCA occurred in 1969. Coca Cola wanted to know which would be better glass bottles or plastic bottles. The study concluded that plastic has lower environmental impacts at the manufacturing stage. Also as glass is heavier, it means higher energy consumption moving the bottles around. So unless the supply chain is short and unless you can guarantee a very high rate of reuse of the glass bottles (i.e. the customers don’t lose them or throw them away), plastic can work out as a better option. I’ve discussed similar studies with respect to plastic bags before.
That said, subsequent studies have reassessed the impact of plastic (which can produce much worse results if they aren’t recycled and previous studies only focused on energy use and carbon footprints), although recycled aluminium cans can also work out better than glass or plastic, as also can cardboard drinking containers. Furthermore, in theory, with a sustainably powered transport system and more renewable energy on the grid, higher energy consumption for glass production (or transport) won’t really matter. Yet another benefit of decarbonising the grid and transport.
But in short, good use of reusable containers (whether they are made of glass, cardboard, plastic or metal) means having what’s called “reversible logistics”. This is common in some industries, for example breweries will often deliver beer in kegs which they will then collect and refill. Gas cylinders are often the property of the gas supplier, who will expect them to be returned for refilling (and inspection). However, delivering that for all products, while certainly possible, it would be challenging. Not least because it requires a more distributed model (you might well make the product overseas, but you ship it to in bulk to local distribution centres, where its packaged individually and shipped out to customers (or shops), with the empties returned).
It is worth noting that once upon a time, this was the norm. In the Victorian era, if you wanted something, rather than going down to the shops, you’d send one of the kids running down the street with a list (the Victorian equivalent of email!). The shop would then deliver to your door (usually another boy…the Victorian equivalent of those drones Amazon is looking to develop I suppose!) and take away any empties. In fact, I’m not that old and I still remember the day’s I’d get send down to the shop with the empties (with the penny’s from the glass bottles going towards the sweets I’d buy!) and a list of things to pick up while I was there. So if it worked for people in the past, why can’t it work for us?
However, the answer might just be because a lot of people just aren’t very responsible. Beer Growler suppliers (often micro breweries) will point out that the main problem for them is the human factor. Customers will buy a growler, then not bring it back…until a year later with it mouldy, full of fag ends or rubbish and they’ll expect a refund! So there are reasons for retailers reluctance to adopting these methods.
Ultimately, until we put a price on waste treatment (you get paid to do clean up) and on waste disposal (it costs you money to throw something away) there’s no incentive to cut down on plastic waste. This could mean putting a minimum price on certain types of plastic, that reflects the costs of disposing of them safely or recycling them (e.g. regardless of production costs a plastic bottle for example costs say £1 which is refunded on recycling). So companies will have a strong incentive to minimise plastic consumption (and switch to types that are easier to recycle or more sustainably sourced where possible) and there will be a strong financial incentive to gather up and dispose of what plastic does get used responsibly.
There is also a need to revisit waste incineration. Granted it comes with many drawbacks but its an infinitely better option than landfilling plastic. Much of the problem with incineration comes from the consequences of putting mixed waste through it, i.e. all kinds of everything goes into the fire at the same time. As different substances break down at different temperatures, this can inevitably means you can get pollution. However, if you are separating out waste, such that certain grades of plastic are the only thing going in at a certain time, then this solves a lot of the problems. Hence even if a significant quantity of plastic was still going to incineration rather than being recycled, it won’t matter, particularly if it’s the types derived from natural sources.
And regardless of what End of Life treatment methods are involved, it should be ideally conducted in the same country as the plastic is used. i.e. Any plastic we use in the UK, we are responsible for its safe disposal. This has long been a principle in other areas of waste management, so I don’t see why exceptions should be made for plastic.
Perhaps ultimately however, much like global warming, the trouble is that this is a global problem. Without international agreements, nothing will get done, as any country that follows through with what I’ve said above will be putting themselves at an economic disadvantage (temporarily, once the rest are swimming in plastic waste it will be the other way around!). Which is precisely why divisive policies such as those pursued by populist politicians (such as those in the US or Italy), or the brexiters are so dangerous.