Grantham Affiliate Chris Cheeseman, Professor of Materials Resources Engineering at Imperial College London, considers what’s behind the plastic pollution crisis, and why designers and engineers are fundamental to developing a long-term solution.
Plastics are fantastic materials. Thanks to their amazing range of properties and inherent durability they have an enormous number of applications and we, as a society, have come to rely on them. They are light, cheap and versatile. They keep our food fresh, make our cars lighter and our homes warmer. The number of different types of plastics is huge and we use them everywhere. In 2014, 311 million tonnes of plastic were produced globally and, according to estimates by Plastic Waste, the UK uses 3.7 million tonnes per year. But unfortunately, plastic pollution, particularly of the oceans, has become a major global issue.
It is not just the volume of plastic that is at fault here. It is how we manage these materials after we have used them that is the problem.
Recycling in developing countries?
It is estimated that 2 billion people have no waste collection, and the waste of over 3 billion people is either dumped or subject to uncontrolled burning. People make use of plastics, but with no waste collection services, they are often dumped into waterways – which lead straight into the oceans. It is no surprise that studies show developing countries, including China, to be the main sources of plastic pollution in the ocean. From a global perspective, working with developing countries to develop proper, sustainable waste management is critically important if we want to address the plastics in the ocean problem.
However, the UK more than plays its part in the plastic crisis. Only a third of plastic packaging used in consumer products is recycled. While there are some fantastically innovative companies that employ great recycling processes, there is – quite simply – more plastic than can be processed. And, more often than not, plastics are contaminated with other materials, making them particularly difficult to recycle. The classic example is the disposable coffee cup. In many ways it is a beautifully designed product. However, it contains two materials – high quality cellulose fibres and a polyethylene inner coating. These have to be tightly bonded together and, consequently, are difficult to separate. This makes recycling the individual materials a complex process – currently, less than 1% of coffee cups are recycled.
Many developed countries, including the UK, have taken the easy option of exporting plastic waste to be recycled in China and other developing nations – the same countries that lack sufficient infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste. Out of sight, out of mind… But, the assumption that they are being properly recycled is far from the truth. In reality, the public and the government have little or no idea about where the plastic ultimately ends up after it has been exported, and it is likely that poor quality materials end up in the local, inadequate waste management system. As of January however, China has banned imports of plastic waste, and so we now need a new approach.
It’s time to get serious about the circular economy
Since 2012, the UK has exported over 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong – two-thirds of the country’s total waste plastic exports. China’s import ban should be a sharp wake-up call for the UK – and other countries – to get serious about the value of what we currently consider ‘waste’. Many such materials should not be exported; they are resources that should be used to build innovative industries. The UK needs a circular economy, i.e. one that does not rely on shipping materials half-way around the world for them to be reused, but relies on system-wide innovation to keep resources in use for as long as possible, and recovers and keeps materials in the economic cycle.
Designers, product developers and materials engineers have an important role in driving the change. Experts like these need to think about the whole life cycle of the materials they use; to design for recycling. And the government needs to support entrepreneurs with the right technical, engineering and business skills to make new materials from recycled plastics, and eliminate plastic waste. The plastic waste of today needs to be in the products of tomorrow!
It’s now or never
Of course, plastic pollution has been a problem for many years, but over the past few months (thanks in part to Blue Planet II) there has been a huge public awakening to this issue. Now we have a golden opportunity – politicians are making decisions to reduce plastic use and opportunistic companies are gaining customer support with quick wins. But cutting down on plastic is not enough. The biggest impact will come from innovation in materials and design; we need to build a circular economy; and we desperately need to support the development of proper waste management in developing countries.
One way you can help is to become a circular economy designer or engineer. And why not support WasteAid UK, a charity working to address waste management problems in developing countries and the challenges of the circular economy across the world.
Find out more about our work on ocean plastic pollution.