What are the solutions for problem plastics?

A new bill has recently entered British Parliament that aims to address what are known as ‘problem plastics’.  The bill seeks a total ban on certain types of plastic in a bid to eliminate them and reduce plastic pollution. At a glance, most of these are single use plastics, used widely by consumers and made available freely in retailers and takeaway outlets. Items such as plastic straws and plastic cutlery which are rapidly accumulating in landfill and waterways. While there is already a great deal of public awareness of how damaging plastic straws and cutlery can be to the environment and for the most part usage has declined. Many believe that a total ban is the only way to eliminate these plastics.

But will that solve the issue with problem plastics?

Certainly the amount of new problem plastic may decline, but that doesn’t really resolve the issue of problem plastic already in circulation. As those in the recycling industry will tell you, it’s probably their biggest headache.

Many people are under the assumption that plastic can easily be pelleted, melted and formed into new containers. While this is partly true, the reality is that the plastic materials degrade after time. So old cool drink bottles do not become new cool drink bottles. They become park benches or plastic bags instead – still useful products but not solving the initial problem. So unless the demand for plastic beverage bottles takes a rapid decline, manufacturers continue to create more single use plastic.  

Researchers around the globe have been working on many alternative solutions. Shoe manufacturer Adidas has lead the charge in developing a plastic polymer that can be infinitely recycled and that doesn’t degrade. Great news for Adidas and their circular economy goals, but until that information becomes available to a broader industry, its impact on the environment will be limited to brand name shoes.

Other researchers have once again gone to the source and are currently experimenting with plant based plastics to determine if recycling could be more effective than composting. An interesting point considering plant based plastics are designed to be biodegradable. Scientists from Bath University are experimenting with a chemical process to recycle plant based plastics. This method prevents the polymers from degrading and ensuring that can be re-moulded into the same type of products as before. Early success has lead them to start experimenting with PET plastics as well. If this is met with similar success, it could well be a game changer for the recycling industry.

But will the industry change?

There is little doubt that there is a great deal of opportunity for expansion in the recycling industry, but setting up a recycling centre is a major investment and takes time. How long will it take before new technologies and recycling methods can be implemented on a mass scale? The industry certainly can’t afford to wait, and besides what will happen to old recycling plants when new technologies are introduced? While it’s fairly certain that most recyclers would gladly like to improve their recovery and recycling rates, the reality of making it happen in the immediate future are more challenging. 

It’s clear that there is no single solution for problem plastics. Banning single use plastics is certainly a good start and it will slow down the amount of new plastic entering the economy. As consumers start becoming used to using alternatives, such as wooden knives and forks or food containers made from plant matter as opposed to petrochemicals, usage habits can start to change.

It’s not just the usage habits that need to change though. More importantly it’s the throwaway habits that need to change. Composting all organic matter is a good start. Reusing plastic containers multiple times should become an entrenched habit. Maybe then what is left and what is then sent to recycling centres will stand a better chance of being recycled properly.