8 September 2017

Not so fantastic plastic

Anthony Foxlee-Brown, Marketing & Communications Manager at Grundon Waste Management, says more must be done to combat the growing plague of plastic waste.

Anthony Foxlee-Brown, Marketing & Communications Manager at Grundon Waste Management

Plastic is so ubiquitous in our lives these days that it’s hard to comprehend it has only been around for the last 65 years or so.

Last month (July) a study led by Dr Roland Geyer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, told us that since the 1950s, 9.1 billion tonnes of plastic have been manufactured.

Billed as the largest ever global report on plastic waste, it revealed that if we continue to throw away plastic at the current rate, we will have generated a massive 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills or elsewhere by 2050.

Already, they have calculated that the total amount of plastic ever made is estimated to be 8.3 billion tonnes – to put that into perspective, I’m reliably informed it is equivalent to one billion elephants (at 7.5 tonnes each) and 25,000 Empire State Buildings (at 331,000 tonnes each).

Can you imagine lining up one billion elephants? No, me neither – if just one were to step on your foot you’d know about it, so the weight of a billion of them similarly doesn’t bear thinking about. I think we’d all sink.

And sink is effectively what we will do if we don’t get a better handle on plastic waste.

The report, entitled ‘Production, Use and Fate of all Plastics Ever Made’, estimates that of the 8.3 billion tonnes of primary or virgin plastics produced, 6.3 billion tonnes of it has been turned into plastic waste of one sort or another, with the rest still in use.

As someone with both a professional and personal interest in recycling, I was saddened to see that only 9% of those 6.3 billion tonnes have been recycled. Some 12% was incinerated but a staggering 79% has been sent to landfill, open dumps or left within the natural environment.

Apparently, according to Geyer and his scientist colleagues, that’s enough to cover an entire country the size of Argentina.

One of the biggest issues is that the strength and durability of plastic is both a winner and a loser. It’s great that plastic is so adaptable and has so many uses, but the fact that none of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable, equally creates an ongoing problem as they will be around in the environment for hundreds of years.

This is a problem not helped by the many different types of polymers, resins and synthetic fibres and additives which make up plastic.

Recycling is, of course, the preferred option although Dr Geyer’s study says this only delays, rather than avoids, final disposal. Recycling only reduces plastic waste generation if it goes some way to reducing the manufacture of new plastics, but with the latter relatively cheap to produce, this is unlikely at this point in time.

Plastics can be incinerated – ideally creating energy in the process – but the challenges of developing new Energy from Waste plants to cope with current levels of residual waste are already well-documented, without adding to the need to build yet more.

And lastly of course, the main disposal method is landfill – and we don’t need a crystal ball to see plastic waste mountains in the future.

In issuing his report, Dr Geyer says he hopes it will start a concerted discussion about what to do with the problem. He believes “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” and says “the holy grail of recycling is to keep material in use and in the loop for ever if you can”.

Unfortunately, his study found that of the material which was recycled, 90% of it was only recycled once, underlining his point about delaying rather than avoiding final disposal.

So how should we, in the industry, respond?

In the short term, I think the onus is on all of us to think more about practical measures we can take to use recycled products in our day-to-day lives. For instance, at Grundon, we currently promote the use of internal bins which are made out of recycled post-consumer plastic – which has proven to be very popular with our environmentally-conscious customers.
At home, our family has refillable water bottles rather than buy new ones each time, and when it comes to shopping – whether it be online or in store – we increasingly make conscious purchase decisions based on a product’s packaging and how easily it can be recycled.

In the longer term however, we need to all work together as a society – with the government, industry and the regulatory bodies leading the way – to make the circular economy more of a reality. In many cases the technology is there, we’re just not taking full advantage of it enough.

These figures should frighten us into doing more. After all, if a billion elephants came to beat down your door, I’m pretty sure that you’d soon be galvanised into action.

Let’s not forget, this planet’s future is in all our hands – the survival of the elephant itself is threatened by ivory poaching – I’d like to think we can save the elephant and save the planet from what some are already describing as a tsunami of plastic.

We need to turn the tide.


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