How can we tackle plastic pollution? 10 solutions for a greener future

rethink sustainability

How can we tackle plastic pollution? 10 solutions for a greener future

For some time now, we have been made aware of the shocking problem of plastic pollution. In recent years, consumers and companies have been working to solve the issue and create more sustainable solutions and adopt sustainable behaviours. 2020 was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, which has had untold negative effects with lives being lost, healthcare systems under immense pressure and it has caused profound economic shock. What’s more, the focus on sanitary care has resulted in an increase in single-use plastic including food and e-commerce packaging coupled with the rise in protective gear.

...the focus on sanitary care [with COVID-19] has resulted in an increase in single-use plastic including food and e-commerce packaging coupled with the rise in protective gear.

Whilst plastic is a hygienic, useful and malleable material, it pollutes our oceans, landfills and the environment. So what’s the solution? We must transition to models that are Circular, Lean, Inclusive and Clean – we call this the CLIC economy and we outline below 10 ways we can continue to tackle plastic pollution.

1. Biodegradable plastic

Most of the everyday plastic we use has several layers, making it complicated to recycle, if not impossible. Companies have come up with solutions to transition to biodegradable plastic using starch, sugar cane or other plant-based material. Yet even biodegradable plastic requires specific conditions to degrade.

Scottish firm Vegware understands that. Its solution offers plant-based compostable foodservice packaging as well as ensuring 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 ocean every year”, warned National Geographic in 2015. Yet, plastic is here to stay and finding solutions to effectively collect it and recycle is vital. Governments must adopt public policies to provide affordable and easy solutions for consumers and manufacturers to recycle. It’s also key that investments are made to improve and increase recycling plants. If we improve the way we recycle, we can effectively segregate and collect waste, resulting in drastically reducing the amount of plastic ending up in landfills and in the environment.

 

3. Cleaning-up our oceans

Have you heard of the interceptor? It is the Ocean Cleanup’s answer to preventing new plastic entering our oceans. This autonomous catamaran relies on natural forces to extract debris through rivers. With its long floating barrier and conveyor belt system, it guides trash into its opening. Relying 100 % on solar power, the shuttle is connected and uses smart software to distribute the waste. The company’s research shows that most of the plastic found in oceans every day started off in rivers. And according to this research, 1000 rivers are responsible for roughly 80% of worldwide pollution. They project to be able to remove 90% of ocean plastic by 20401.

The Ocean Cleanup projects to be able to remove 90% of ocean plastic by 2040.

4. Smart packaging

Another way to fight plastic pollution is through technology. Around 80 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced annually and this is expected to triple by 20502. Smart packaging can enhance the productivity of plastic. CupClub uses tracking devices to reduce single-use plastic packaging. With an RFID3 chip built into every cup, the packing is not abandoned and is properly recycled. The cups are also 100% sustainable.

Smart packaging can enhance the productivity of plastic.

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”4.Yet, brands are setting new trends. From Patagonia to Nike, some brands are cutting their plastic consumption by integrating recycled plastics into their lines. This July 2020, Nike is unveiling its latest innovation, the Space Hippie, a pair of trainers with the brand’s lowest carbon footprint ever. 85–90% of the yarn comes from recycled content, including plastic bottles, t-shirts and post-industrial scraps. Also, Spanish brand Ecoalf has been transforming waste into fashion products since 2009. Thanks to their initiative, they’ve removed 500 tonnes of waste from the bottom of the ocean.

The fashion industry accounts for 10% of all of humanity’s carbon emissions - more than “all international flights and maritime shipping combined”

6. Using cellulose in cosmetics

From toothpaste to peelings, our cosmetics today are often filled with microplastics – plastic particles. Yet, made of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), these particles are not biodegradable and enter our food chain and our oceans5.Some countries have imposed bans. The UK, for example, banned microbeads from shower gels and toothpaste in 2018 and in January 2019, the European Chemicals Agency proposed a restriction to “intentionally added micro plastics in products”. A decision should be taken during 2020.

Award-winning start-up Naturbeads, based at the University of Bath, has found an alternative - biodegradable microbeads made from cellulose. A research study has found that cellulose made out of beechwood, oats, wheat and maize can be a key solution to microplastics.

 

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.

The road to a circular economy is diverse and the solutions come in different shapes. We support the 10 R strategy: refuse, rethink, reduce, reuse, repair, refurbish, remanufacture, repurpose, recycle and recover. Every step is key and will lead to a sustainable, clean and circular future.

In order to build a sustainable future, we need to decouple economic growth from environmental impact. We support the 10 R strategy.

Loop, a fast-growing shopping platform, leads the way by embracing a full circularity strategy. It eliminates the idea of waste by offering good-looking, durable and multi-use packaging for everyday items, from shampoo to ice cream containers. Already collaborating with major brands such as Nestlé and Danone, its strategy is that of “the milkman”. They deliver, pick up, clean, and refill.

 

8. Energy recovery technologies

Some plastics simply cannot be recycled. Yet, engineers have found a way to convert it into electricity, synthetic gas, fuels and recycled feedstocks for new plastics.

Norwegian start-up Quantafuel produces high-quality synthetic fuels and chemical products based on non-recyclable plastic waste. They convert plastic polymers back into hydrocarbons. They impact is two-fold: reducing the amount of waste going to the landfill and diversifying the energy supply.

This Is Plastic states, “If we use plastics for energy recovery, we can reduce the volume of waste going to landfills by 80%”.

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9. Creating plastic paths

Roads and highways, made with asphalt, contain fuels, which are highly polluting. One innovative Scottish company Macrebur found a way to use recycled plastic to reduce the carbon footprint of “road-paving” How? By melting used plastic to create waste pellets (small granules) to replace the fuel needed in the bitumen aka asphalt mix. The impact is multiple. Whilst recycling plastic, this technology also improves the quality of the roads, reduces the carbon footprint of the asphalt and makes it more resistant. This is the perfect representation of a circular economy6.

 

10. Education

Although all the above solutions are essential, if we don’t shift away from the “take-make-waste” culture, the road to sustainability will be very hard. We need a shift in mindset and education programmes play a key role.

For example, the Volvo Ocean Race, in partnership with the UN Environment, organised an education programme to raise awareness on plastic pollution in the ocean through teaching and positive actions. Children are taught ways to combat ocean pollution whilst discovering sailing.

We need a shift in mindset and education programmes play a key role.

NGOs such as Plastic Oceans in the UK, have developed teaching platforms for pupils to learn intriguing facts and take on challenges on plastic pollution, alternatives and how to recycle properly. 

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

 

A profitable industry

The shift to a sustainable future is now. Plastic waste is worth up to $120 billion per year and the circular economy will represent USD 4.5 trillion1 global growth opportunity within the next 10 years. Consumers, companies and governments must come together to foster change.

With only 7 years left of carbon credit, decarbonisation is vital and we are convinced that energy, mobility, agriculture and digitalisation solutions will lead us onto the path to net zero emissions and zero waste.

From fashion, education, engineering to technology, we are well on the path to reducing plastic pollution. However, it is not the only issue at stake. We need change across multiple sectors in order to transition to a clean and lean economy. With only 7 years left of carbon credit, decarbonisation is vital and we are convinced that energy, mobility, agriculture and digitalisation solutions will lead us onto the path to net zero emissions and zero waste.

 

1 https://theoceancleanup.com/oceans/#:~:text=Models%20show%20that%20a%20full,of%20ocean%20plastic%20by%202040.
2 https://www.ukri.org/innovation/industrial-strategy-challenge-fund/smart-sustainable-plastic-packaging/
3 RFID : Radio-frequency identification
4 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/fashion-industry-carbon-unsustainable-environment-pollution/
5 https://www.lab-worldwide.com/environmentally-friendly-microplastic-alternatives-in-cosmetics-a-676549/
6 What if we talk rubbish? | Toby McCartney | TEDxCambridgeUniversity  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLbpacZJdx0

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