Earth day 2018: actions not words
By Michael Robinson-Moltke, Waste Consultant
The damage that the mismanagement of plastic waste is doing to our planet is being communicated to us daily. You can’t miss the facts and figures being headlined across all media channels. To note just a few:
- 8 million tonnes of plastic waste is being deposited in to the marine environment each year.
- 80 percent of marine litter originates on land.
- The Green Alliance estimates that beverage litter makes up a third of all marine plastic pollution.
- 50 percent of the plastic we use, we use just once and throw away.
Arguably, it’s not even the plastics that we can see that are causing the most damage:
- An average seafood consumer in the UK will be ingesting about 11,000 plastic particles every year.
- Micro plastics have been found in 93% of samples tested, from the world’s top 11 bottled water brands.
If we all don’t start to treat our planet with more respect, future generations will justifiably apportion much of the blame at our door. We are after all, the generation (since the 1970s) that has cultivated and mismanaged, what some have called ‘the plastics revolution’, the source of the challenge we now face.
Whilst many individuals will actively take steps to reduce their own impact, this will only get us so far. Through the tools available to Government, they are in the privileged position of being able to shift societies perception of plastic as a waste stream, to that of a valued resource. To do that consumers and industry need to feel the cost of the loss of that value, in their pockets, and on their balance sheets. If the right measures are taken, responsible management of that resource will ensure that costs are not incurred, in turn ensuring a closed loop, and going a long way to solving plastic pollution challenge.
Governments and politicians the world over regularly make bold statements of the positive changes and outcomes they seek to achieve. The UK Government has not so long ago (January 2018) published their own 25-year environmental plan. Within this, are two targeted references to the issue of plastic pollution:
- Working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042, and
- Significantly reducing and where possible preventing all kinds of marine plastic pollution – in particular material that came originally from land.
We can all agree that these are outcomes that we would love to see (all be it within a shorter time frame), but what are the actions, which after all speak louder than the words?
Government should be taking steps to incentivise manufactures to use recycled (rather than virgin) plastic as a resource. This could be done with a carrot, a stick, or both. Reduce the tax burden where manufacturers are using a high percentage of recycled material. Impose a tax on those using virgin materials. Manufacturers from outside of the UK could be hit with an added import tax for the same reason. There will be industry bodies who cry foul of course, but we are trying to save the planet - there is no bigger issue. These steps would in turn push up the value and quality of the plastics in the recyclates market.
To give him his due, in his Spring statement the Chancellor announced a call for evidence on how tax would be best used to reduce the levels of single use plastics. Watch this space…
The Government is also currently consulting on a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). Examples of such schemes can be seen to be running successfully already within mainland Europe. The basis of a DRS is that it provides consumers with financial encouragement to responsibly dispose of the targeted items – in our case single use plastic drinks containers. If the success of the carrier bag tax is anything to go by, then a DRS can’t come soon enough. By some estimates in the year following the introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags, there were six billion fewer single-use plastic bags used. With many of the biggest retailers reporting 85% drops in demand.
Plastic pollution is a worldwide issue. As recently noted by CIWM chief executive Colin Church: “Some 3 billion people across the globe do not have access to controlled waste disposal services and facilities”. This mismanagement in developing countries is a major source of plastics entering the oceans. Should the UK be insisting that a percentage of the millions of pounds worth of aid being sent to many such countries, should be used to help tackle plastic pollution? Is there also a role for industry experts to educate and inform overseas?
Part of the solution to solving the problem of plastic pollution will also need to be innovation. The UK Government needs to support and encourage this with the provision of funds to aid with research and development. Just this week there have been reports that scientists have been able to engineer an enzyme capable of breaking down plastics in a matter of days, rather than centuries. The claim is that the enzyme can degrade PET back into its original chemical chain, quickly enabling it to be used again. On the face of it, this a significant development. Hopefully Government will offer further support to research of this nature, thus accelerating the timescales where innovations might be able to be utilised on a larger industrial scale.
A valuable and recyclable resource
Whilst we are clear on the case for reducing our plastic usage, and the better management of what remains; we must also acknowledge that there will always be a demand for some level of plastic packaging. As a resource it can be both strong and light, it’s secure, durable, and relatively cheap. It does in fact (when managed correctly) offer many environmental benefits, compared to glass for example. Goods packaged in plastic will have a vastly reduced carbon footprint, in the main down to the reduction in fuel needed to transport each unit of product. It is recognised that recycling glass uses 66% of the energy it would take to manufacture new glass on average, while plastic only requires 10% of the energy it takes to produce virgin plastic. This only further illustrates the benefit to be gleaned from ensuring we capture and recycle as much of the plastic out there as we possibly can. It has been estimated that over 5 billion plastic bottles, that could relatively easily be recycled are not currently re-entering the supply chain. It’s the mismanagement, and irresponsible disposal of plastic (particularly single use plastic) items that leads to pollution.