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The Plastic Pollution Problem

“Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest.” Charles J. Moore*

I do not wish to claim any sort of clairvoyance or to say ‘we told you so’, but it is immensely frustrating to find that it is only in the last few years that the majority of the public appear to be waking up to the problems of over-population, pollution and climate-change, when so much of the evidence has been available for over 50 years now. Well before St Greta and her followers appeared on the scene, other prophets have been reading, researching and writing about the subject for many decades. It appears to have taken a long time and perhaps, additionally, the pause of a pandemic for businesses, governments and most people to catch up. This is, of course, entirely understandable and completely in line with the way humans have behaved for millennia. If something is not an imminent threat, it is not really a threat. If there is no immediate threat, it is of far more importance for people to attend to day-to-day needs and business, and for governments to deal with issues which people deem important now.

The pandemic, and resultant world-wide shutdowns, has given many more people the opportunity to re-evaluate not only their lives and work, but the effect which human behaviour has had and continues to have on the rest of life on the planet. It is not good. Is this a pivotal moment when the realisation could perhaps result in actions; when behaviours could change; when change could put us onto a different trajectory? Can a decline into a dystopian society living in a damaged world on a destroyed planet be averted?

In the UK we are moving from a throwaway society to one in which we re-use, re-purpose and recycle, aren’t we? The government has mandated that we will move from ‘dirty’ energy to renewables and attain net zero emissions by 2050. Cars are no longer going to use fossil fuels but will be powered by rechargeable batteries. The hundreds of thousands of new homes which we need to build to house our ever-expanding population will be ‘eco-friendly’ (although the recent BBC Reality Check on the government’s green targets show that we have already failed to meet that one). Worldwide, we are exploring the possibility of sources of protein (insects, algae etc.) other than those provided by millions of methane-producing ruminants. Where we do continue to have such animals we will ensure the methane they produce is re-used as energy, and so on.

This all sounds good and as we know, humans are nothing if not ingenious and inventive. Faced with a problem we do everything we can to solve it. The streets of London never did end up knee-deep in horse manure, thanks to the invention of the car. The excess amounts of ash produced in Victorian times, because homes were heated by domestic fires and industrial processes required coal-burning furnaces, were turned into house bricks. More recently we have, in record time, produced vaccines to prevent more of our population from succumbing to the respiratory virus, Covid-19. If we don’t really value our planet and the other living things on it, we at least value human life.

What is not so clear is whether we value it enough when it comes to future lives, or the lives and health of those on the other side of the ocean. Greenpeace has found damning evidence of plastic rubbish from the UK being burnt on the roadside in Turkey, even though it is illegal under UK law for plastic waste to be exported unless it is being recycled or incinerated to produce energy. In 2019, there was condemnation when it was discovered that Indonesia had become a dumping ground for plastic waste from Australia, North America and Europe (see World Economic Forum article). China, fed-up with a similar situation, banned such imports in 2017 under a policy called National Sword.

Why, honestly, are we exporting plastic rubbish at all? There would appear to be nothing environmentally-friendly about using energy and fuel to send waste material halfway around the world. Surely other countries have enough of their own plastic waste without needing or wanting to accept ours? Waste may be a resource, but shouldn’t it be one we are utilising here?

According to ENF there are 69 plastic recycling plants in the UK. They are located around the country from Scotland down to Devon (Cornwall does not appear to have one). Some recycle all waste plastic; others are specific in the sort of plastic they are able to take. Most turn it into granules or pellets. Some produce flakes. These can then be sold to be turned into new plastic items. However, not all plastics are easily recyclable. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an organisation which includes such giants as Shell, Honeywell and Veolia, explains very simply in a blog written in March this year, the Plastic Waste Problem and the attempts by industry to create a sustainable circular economy. They, like Ocean Plastic Debris Education Research and Awareness (OPDERA) seek not only to find solutions, but to educate the public worldwide into being a part of those solutions.

In this country we make an effort ostensibly to recycle plastic. Households dutifully separate their waste into rubbish and recyclables. Councils remove it once a week or fortnight and we all feel we are being good citizens and helping the world become a better place. What, however really happens to the stuff councils take away to be recycled? Well, according to an article in the Guardian by Oliver Franklin-Wallis, The Recycling Myth, written in August 2019, although this country appears to be recycling 45.7% of all household waste, this figure only represents the amount sent for recycling. Where it ends up is another matter altogether, as the media exposures in the last few years have revealed. Plastic is a particular problem.

Although efforts are being made by the government to become ‘greener’, and laws have been passed to further that agenda, when it comes to plastics, there are ways in which individuals, local authorities and businesses could help. At an individual level, recyclables could be sorted into colour-coded bins as happens already in some developed countries. Plastics could be pre-sorted by householders, who also need to be educated to clean all containers and ensure nothing is contaminated by food or other waste. Although the mechanisation of sorting is continuing apace, as Mr Franklin-Wallis indicates in his article, a lot of the initial sorting is still done by hand. As both a courtesy to those doing this unpleasant job and as a further efficiency, it would probably make sense for householders to participate still further and for council collections not to mix as many different types of rubbish as most do currently.

Although most of us now see plastic as a problem, Adrian Griffiths, of Recycling Technologies, pointed out to Mr Franklin-Wallis that, “Plastic packaging has actually done an incredible service for the world, because it has reduced the amount of glass, metal and paper that we were using. The thing that worries me more than the plastic problem is global warming. If you use more glass, more metal, those materials have a much higher carbon footprint.” His company has developed a machine which can separate at high temperatures any type of plastic, including pouches and black plastic and turn it back into an oil which can be re-used to create new plastics. He firmly believes that we need to stop shipping recycling abroad and hopes ultimately to sell his machines to recycling facilities around the world. Recycling alone though is not enough to stem the tide of waste we produce.

Could we return to the days of returnable or reusable containers? Supermarkets would need to play a much greater role for this to be achieved. So much of the packaging we end up bringing home with us is not necessary or desirable. The possibilities for reducing plastic are numerous and increasingly supermarkets are looking at these as well as working with waste management companies like Recycling Technologies. Other businesses are now increasingly looking at reducing or finding ways of reusing packaging sent out with their products.

In the meantime as the Government gets ready to welcome leaders from around the world in Cornwall in August for the G7 meeting to discuss the pressing issues facing the world, we can only hope that that this is one of the urgent issues on their agenda. Plastic may be indispensable in the modern world, but our excessive use of it and casual disposal of it is something which requires not only individual education but government level intervention, not just here, but worldwide.

* Charles J. Moore is an American oceanographer; best known for drawing attention to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a vast area of floating plastic waste in the ocean between Hawaii and California.



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