rethink sustainability

    10 solutions to the problem of plastic pollution

    10 solutions to the problem of plastic pollution

    In recent years, the problem of plastic pollution has come under a growing spotlight. Shocking images of plastic flooding our oceans and the discovery of plastic waste on uninhabited desert islands1 have shifted consumer sentiment and spurred industry efforts to find a comprehensive plastic pollution solution.

    Central to this will be the emergence of a new economy, one that’s Circular, Lean, Inclusive and Clean, where we reduce resource extraction, and re-use and recycle more of our existing materials. We call this the CLIC® economy.

    Here we identify 10 solutions, as we look at how to tackle plastic pollution.


    1. Biodegradable plastic

    Much of the plastic we use every day, such as in food or product packaging, is made up of several layers – this can make it difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. Firms at the leading edge of plastics innovation have devised alternative biodegradable plastics using starch, sugar cane or other plant-based materials. Yet even biodegradable plastic requires specific conditions in order to properly degrade.

    Scottish firm Vegware understands this. Its solution offers plant-based compostable food-service packaging and ensures that appropriate waste facilities are available to compost and recycle their materials. Vegware is the fastest growing export company selling sustainable, recyclable, compostable products for food and drinks.


    2. Managing waste from the bottom up

    “Eight million metric tons of plastic dumped in the ocean every year” – that was the warning from National Geographic in 2015. Since then, the problem has worsened – a 2020 report found that the volume of plastic making its way into our oceans is on course to triple by 20402. Plastic, however, which is cheap to manufacture and almost endlessly adaptable, is here to stay – much of modern life depends on it.

    While innovative ways to reduce plastic waste often catch the headlines, the starting point for an effective circular plastics system is in getting the basics right – the waste management infrastructure. Government policy must support affordable, easy solutions for consumers and manufacturers to recycle. Investment must be made to improve collection and sorting, increasing the percentage of plastic waste that is successfully segregated and recycled, and drastically reducing the amount of plastic that ends in landfill, being incinerated or leaking into the environment.

    Read also: Eliminating plastic pollution: an investor perspective


    3. Cleaning-up our oceans

    Have you heard of the Interceptor? The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch company founded in 2013, believes this is the answer to ‘turning off the plastic tap’, preventing new plastic waste from entering our oceans. The Interceptor, a 100% solar-powered autonomous catamaran, relies on natural forces to extract debris from rivers. With its long floating barrier and conveyor belt system, the Interceptor traps waste and uses smart software to extract, distribute and offload it.

    The company’s research shows that most of the plastic found in oceans made its way there via rivers, and that just 1,000 rivers are responsible for roughly 80% of this river-borne waste. They project that their latest ‘System 002’, which is designed to collect plastic from ocean garbage hotspots, will be able to remove 90% of floating ocean plastic by 20403.


    4. Smart packaging

    Another way to fight plastic pollution is through software technology. Around 80 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced annually, and this is expected to triple by 20504. Smart solutions can enhance the productivity of packaging items. ClubZero provides a returnable packaging system for use in-store and for takeaway and delivery, using tracking devices to cut single-use plastic packaging. An RFID5 chip built into every cup and tray ensures items do not go abandoned, and instead are returned for cleaning and re-deployment. Their products are also made from 100% sustainable materials.


    5. A sustainable fashion industry

    What is the environmental cost of your wardrobe? The fashion industry accounts for 10% of all of humanity’s carbon emissions – more than “all international flights and maritime shipping combined”6. Yet brands are now setting new, cleaner, trends. From Patagonia to Nike, industry names are cutting their plastic consumption by integrating recycled plastics into their product lines.

    Launched in the summer of 2020, Nike’s Space Hippie trainers are made with yarn that uses 85-90% recycled content, including plastic bottles, t-shirts and post-industrial scraps, giving them the brand’s lowest carbon footprint ever for shoes. Nike have since built on this success with their Space Hippe tee – a t-shirt made from 100% recycled material. Meanwhile, Spanish brand Ecoalf has been transforming waste into fashion since 2009. Many of their products are made from 100% recycled plastic and, thanks to their Upcycling the Oceans initiative, they’ve removed 1,000 tonnes of plastic waste from the bottom of the ocean.


    6. Using cellulose in cosmetics

    From toothpaste to face-peels, cosmetics today are often filled with ‘microbeads’ – plastic particles less than one millimetre across which are added to cosmetic products as an exfoliant. Made of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), these non-biodegradable particles often enter our oceans and our food chain7. A number of countries have already banned the sale of cosmetics containing microbeads – on 30 August 2022 the European Commission published a draft proposal that would restrict the use of microbeads throughout the EU bloc8.

    Award-winning start-up Naturbeads, based at the University of Bath, has found an alternative – biodegradable microbeads made from cellulose. One research study found that cellulose made out of beechwood, oats, wheat and maize can be as effective as fossil-fuel-based plastic microbeads, and could provide a solution to this growing problem.


    7. Circular economy

    In order to build a sustainable future, we need to decouple economic growth from environmental impact. And one way to do that is through circularity. To achieve this we support the “10 R” strategy: refuse, rethink, reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, repurpose, recycle and recover. By properly implementing each of these steps we can create a sustainable, clean, circular future.

    Loop, a fast-growing shopping platform, is leading the way by embracing a full circularity strategy. Loop eliminates waste by offering attractive, durable, multi-use packaging for everyday products that can be refilled in-store, everything from shampoo to ice cream. Loop is perhaps the biggest name in a fresh approach to retail that is also being seen through a grassroots movement – in many places new independent “refill-only” shops are appearing, as consumers show strong demand for products without the packaging.

    Read also: Empowering the next generation of responsible investors and promoting plastic circularity

    8. Energy recovery technologies

    Some plastics simply cannot be recycled with conventional recycling methods – for these, new plastic waste recycling technology will be needed. Through carefully-managed incineration, or through thermal or chemical “depolymerisation”, engineers have found ways to convert waste into electricity, synthetic gas, other types of fuel or feedstock for new plastics.

    Norwegian start-up Quantafuel produces high-quality synthetic fuels and chemical products from non-recyclable plastic waste. By converting plastic polymers back into hydrocarbons they reduce the volume of waste going to landfill and diversify the energy supply.


    9. Creating plastic paths

    Roads and highways are usually made with asphalt, a chief component of which is ‘asphalt cement’, a highly-polluting, viscous form of petroleum. Scottish company Macrebur has an innovative alternative that uses recycled plastic to reduce the carbon footprint of our roads.

    How? By melting used plastic to create pellets which can replace the petroleum needed in the asphalt cement. This technology improves the quality of the road surface, making it more hardwearing, recycles plastic that would otherwise be wasted, and cuts the carbon footprint of the asphalt – the perfect representation of a circular economy9.


    10. Education

    Technological and infrastructure innovations will be essential components of the plastic pollution solution, but the road to sustainability will be longer and more arduous without a shift away from today’s “take-make-waste” culture. Across society a mindset shift is needed, and education programmes play a key role.

    For example, the Volvo Ocean Race, in partnership with UN Environment, organises an education programme to raise awareness on plastic pollution in our oceans, teaching children ways to combat ocean pollution whilst introducing them to sailing. And NGOs, such as Plastic Oceans in the UK, have developed platforms to teach pupils how to tackle plastic pollution through education on recycling and plastic alternatives.

    We believe that education can change behaviour and attitudes towards plastic consumption and waste management, and that the next generation will be the drivers of a sustainable future.


    A profitable industry

    The shift to a sustainable future is already well underway. Plastic pollution represents a lost value of up to USD 120 billion each year, and the transition to a circular economy offers a global growth opportunity of USD 4.5 trillion by 2030. Across industries, consumers, companies and governments are coming together to foster change. From fashion to education, and from engineering to technology – we are on the path to reducing plastic pollution.

    However, there are bigger issues, still, at stake. In order to transition to a clean and lean economy we need similar changes across multiple economic sectors. We are convinced that transformations in energy, materials and land & oceans systems, along with the growth of carbon credit markets and digitisation solutions, will lead us on the path to net zero emissions and zero waste.


    Henderson Island: the Pacific paradise groaning under 18 tonnes of plastic waste | South Pacific | The Guardian
    Plastic Pollution in Oceans to Triple by 2040, Harming Climate - Bloomberg
    Oceans • The Ocean Cleanup
    Developing sustainable plastic packaging: apply for funding - GOV.UK (
    5 RFID – Radio-frequency identification
    Is fashion bad for the environment? | World Economic Forum (
    Environmentally Friendly Microplastic Alternatives in Cosmetics (
    Microplastics - ECHA (
    What if we talk rubbish? | Toby McCartney | TEDxCambridgeUniversity

    Important information

    This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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