We’ve read that over 80% of all plastic waste comes from food packaging and that the EU (which has one of the best recycling records in the world) only manages to recycle 32.5% of its plastic waste. Worse, the US only manages to recycle around 5% of its plastic waste.
But there are good news stories out there. So we thought we’d round up a few of the more positive items that we’ve seen over the past few months including one or two reality checksthat we’ve come across.
Plastic isn’t as a bad as everyone seems to think. A lot of this comes back to the food and drink industry. One example we saw in a research report some years ago (we’ll have to try and find the article) noted that if all drinks were transported in glass bottles as opposed to plastic then the volume that can be carried per lorry is less than that in plastic bottles and the weight per litre of fluid is so much higher. The result, greatly increased fuel consumption.
The benefits of plastic in food packaging have been well documented but it’s not a very politically correct thing to talk about these days. Research shows that the costs and therefore environmental impact of increased food waste, due to no or sub-optimal packaging being used, is huge. And of cause there’s the cost of the alternatives such as aluminium which is often touted as a plastic container alternative. The costs of producing aluminium from the mining of bauxite is huge.
But we need to dispose of it more responsibly. Let’s face it, we’re an untidy and messy species. We believe we’re fairly good in the UK and Europe, although we’ve all seen plenty of roadside waste, not to mention fly tipping, both of which weshould be more vigilant against.
Most of the plastic in our oceans comes from land-based origin: by weight, 70% to 80% is plastic that is transported from land to the sea via rivers or coastlines and it’s predominantly from developing nations, largely asian. Six rivers, the Yangtze, Xi, and Huangpu in China; the Ganges in India; Cross in Nigeria; and the Amazon in Brazil are reported as being the biggest problem. The other 20% to 30% of oceanic plastic pollution comes from marine origin such as fishing nets, lines, ropes, and abandoned vessels. (see our sources below). But we shouldn’t just pass-the-buck or the blame onto developing nations who’s populations are mostly concerned with daily survival rather than the environmental impact of something that occurred possibly thousands of miles away. So what should we do ? We think that wealthy countries should use their resources to promote research and education so that the real problems are identified which can help developing countries implement more environmentally sustainable policies and educate their populations to the consequences of not doing so which in the long run affect everyone.
So what are examples of things that could help ? We’ve seen three that illustrate improvements that can be made through technology which will hopefully lead to a more sustainable future :
Sorting plastic waste (indeed all waste that is recyclable) is a big problem because waste products come in so many different forms. The Singapore based “Alliance to End Plastic Waste” is pioneering new technologies which allow for the better, cheaper and faster sorting of waste via automated systems that grade and identify materials so that it can then be recycled more efficiently.
The use of enzymes has been identified as a new technology whereby enzymes break down plastic waste quickly and efficiently so that it can be re-used or disposed of in a more responsible way. An example from Science Alert notes a new Fast-PETase technology whereby an enzyme rapidly breaks down PET plastics into its chemically constituent parts so that it can more easily be re-built into a new plastic product. Apost on YouTube (see our sources below) also reports on a polystyrene eating worm which uses enzymes to break down the plastic in a similar way so that it can be more easily re-built into reusable plastic.
An article from New Atlas covers a technology which has created a PET like plastic which is derived from plant waste which can be “chemically recycled or degraded into harmless sugars in the environment”.
And how is the clean up going ? It’s started and it seems to be going well. The Ocean Clean Up has deployed it’s plastic traps and is refining the technology based on experience gained. As scaling up is developed they’re forecasting to be able to clean up 90% of ocean plastics by 2040 which would be fantastic. Azo Cleantech gives a wider view of the efforts currently underway to clean up plastic including the plastic that gets into the ocean via rivers that mainly flow through Asian countries.
We think that these few articles give examples that a lot is going on to try and sort out the plastic problem. But we also think that the problem has to be approached from an intelligent and researched perspective and the best ways forward shared with all.
We believe that we should all use recycled and recyclable materials when we can and keep in mind that unless we want to completely change the way we live there will always be another cost, probably a hidden one, to using plastic alternatives. The alternative may be better, but we think it should be properly understood first.