Solving the global plastic problem
Plastic is the material that best embodies the modern era. It is versatile, easy and affordable to produce. Plastic makes the lives of millions (if not billions) of people easier, from medical equipment and furniture to cables, piping and insulation. However, the world has a plastic problem. As vital as it is across many sectors and industries, most plastics produced today are not biodegradable and do not decompose. The world produces approximately 430 million tonnes of plastic a year, most of which becomes waste destined for landfills. According to a 2023 UNEP Practical Guide for World Environmental Day, “widespread plastic waste results in damage to ecosystems and human health worth US$300 billion to US$600 billion a year.” Single use plastics are particularly troublesome. Designed to be used once, single use plastics break down into microplastics that contaminate food and water.
How to address the crisis? It is both simple and complex. After all, plastics are everywhere. The first component of tackling the plastic pollution problem is addressing already existing waste. The world’s 10 biggest landfills span North America, Asia and Europe, totalling an approximate 7162 acres of waste. Although landfills in Italy and the United States have been closed, the waste keeps piling up. Some countries have traditionally exported their plastic waste to avoid the expansion of landfills in their countries. However, China – the world’s largest consumer of plastics and producer of plastic waste – banned the import of plastic waste into the country in 2018. Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia followed suit, citing similar environmental concerns and limits in their recycling capacities. In 2017, Kenya banned single use plastics, making it one of the few countries to do so. The single use and waste import bans have had a positive impact on the natural environments in each country, but these interventions do not address existing waste. Recycling plastic waste from landfills has its own set of challenges, from limited infrastructure to contaminated streams and some plastics that are not recyclable.
For scientists in Japan, an unexpected discovery in a rubbish pile could lead to a breakthrough innovation. Plastic eating bacteria produce enzymes that break plastic down into smaller molecules that are then absorbed and metabolized. This could be a gamechanger for tackling landfills and general plastic waste. In addition, plastic eating bacteria also produce monomers, which can then be used to produce biodegradable plastics. Research into the usability of this bacteria is still in its nascent stage, nor is it a silver bullet. However, if successfully deployed, it could go a long way in reducing existing waste.
And what of the future? After all, solving the pollution problem requires addressing existing waste and rethinking current models of plastic production and consumption. Using the traditional 3 R’s or Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, Reduce and Reuse are of significance when it comes to how we use and plastics. From supermarkets and chain stores to UNICEF and National Geographic, organisations and individuals have made public pledges to reduce plastic usage, especially single use plastics. Reducing plastic consumption is a key element of reshaping humanity’s relationship with plastic towards more sustainable practices, but even usage reduction doesn’t address the continued need for the material.
Enter sustainable plastics. An umbrella term for bioplastics, it includes bioplastics, recycled plastics and biodegradable plastics, and are made from a range of materials including renewable feedstocks, cellulose and starch blends. The production and consumption of these plastics contributes to the realisation of a circular economy, keeping plastic products in use for longer and out of landfills. Sustainable plastics are already in use with recycled bottles, bio furniture and clothing, medical tools and food packaging. Compostable plastics have added benefits from their sustainable peers: they decrease carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and landfills whilst enriching the quality of composts without the use of fertilisers. The widespread use of sustainable plastics would have a positive impact on the natural environment and factor into meeting crucial sustainability goals. As outlined in a white paper produced by Total Carbon: “Offering new end-of-life solutions for bioplastics with composting will help reach the EU goals of 70% of packaging recycling by 2030 and specifically 55% of plastic packaging recycling by 2030.”