Fantastic plastic – creating opportunities, not just problems

We hear so much about the plastic problem. How the over production and overuse of plastic is quite literally choking the planet. There is a massive plastic garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. Micro-plastics are being found in air, fish, snow and even human poop, so there is absolutely no doubt that there is far too much plastic on the planet. There have been calls to stop using plastic, to recycle and reuse plastic. Bold ideals, but difficult to implement on a global scale. Realistically, how long will it take to achieve zero plastic? And when we do what will happen to all the industries related to producing and using plastic?

We villainise plastic, but in reality it can be a really great product, if used in the right way. We, as humans, have just gone about using it in the wrong way – for example: single use plastics. That’s what has resulted in the plastic problem. But even this problem is now creating opportunities.


Reuse - changing mindsets - it doesn’t have to be new


Public awareness about reusing is growing, making people aware that recycling is not the only solution. Instead of discarding plastic containers in the garbage, people are finding other uses for them in the home, thereby extending their lifespan and usefulness. Plastic tubs may be used as plant containers, for storage and organising kitchen or home items or used to make kids crafts and toys. Décor trends even encourage upcycling old furniture, giving it a new look using paint or other décor effects.  In the younger generation, it’s fashionable to shop for clothing in second hand thrift stores, especially now that the vintage look is back. As this mindset of reuse becomes more entrenched in society, plastics can actually become more useful and therefore hold more value. 


Recycling – use less, make more


One of the biggest changes happening regarding plastics is the awareness that plastics, can and should be used more than once. And if individuals don’t have a use for them, they can pass them on to those who do. There are many recycling initiatives in the UK, from curbside collections, to drop off depots and deposit or recycling credit schemes. The latter is aimed at encouraging people to recycle more, giving people shopping or transport credits for every plastic bottle or item that they recycle. Statistics show that recycling rates have increased, especially for plastics and the UK is currently on track to meet their recycling targets.


Where’s the real opportunity?


While the “reduce, reuse and recycle” way of thinking is certainly making an impact, it’s only part of the solution. The real opportunity lies in picking up where the public has left off. There are a myriad of processes involved in recycling, from collections, through to sorting and cleaning, baling and processing for reuse.  Innovations in technology are helping to streamline processes, increasing the capacity and effectiveness of recycling efforts. People are developing better sensors, better sorting machines, better systems for processing and tracking materials, and each one of these represents an opportunity to add value to the industry, while helping to solve part of the plastic problem.


Other innovators are focusing on the reuse aspect, finding ways to refine plastic particles into pellets or oil so that they can be used to create new products. One again, each and every support function in the process is providing opportunity for innovation. Sometimes plastics are combined with other materials to make them more robust and resilient to wear and tear. This reduces maintenance and improves performance of products.


Essentially plastic is a resource that has been grossly underutilised and misused. The linear approach to take, make, and throw away is what has resulted in the plastic problem. But now as awareness grows, and mindsets change, there will be increasing opportunities to use plastic as a resource, create circular economies, and in the process help to resolve and clean up mass volumes of plastic waste. It’s all about perspective, of looking beyond the problem, and finding solutions that can benefit communities, economies and ultimately planet earth too.