What are our top tips to reduce plastic pollution?

rethink sustainability

What are our top tips to reduce plastic pollution?

The plastics crisis isn’t new but it is still threatening the natural environment on which we depend, impacting oceans, communities, wildlife, and people at an unprecedented rate. While plastic is easy to handle, lightweight and highly durable, it has spread to every corner of our life and increased our dependence on fossil fuels - its production uses 8% of the world’s oil. Today, the plastic industry is valued at US$522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 20401.

What’s more, plastic pollution has a terrible impact on our marine population. Our oceans contain 300 million tonnes of plastic waste and we add another 8 million every year. And 70% of all plastic produced is discarded and ends up in landfill or leaks into nature and pollutes – spreading across coastal ecosystems, entangling wildlife, and it’s even ingested by humans (an average person may well be ingesting five grams of microplastics every week).

The plastics crisis isn’t new but it is still threatening the natural environment on which we depend, impacting oceans, communities, wildlife, and people at an unprecedented rate

Yet, change is in motion. Plastic bans, for example, are growing around the world. Last year, 170 nations pledged to "significantly reduce" the use of plastic by 2030.

So how can we fight the plastic crisis? What are the solutions that will really make a difference? The global “Plastic Free July” movement raises awareness and invites us to rethink our consumption and opt for better alternatives in July and beyond.

Discover our top tips to cut back on plastic waste and build a Circular, Lean, Inclusive and Clean (CLICTM) economy.

Reducing or reusing plastic – the way towards circularity

Every year, July 3 is “Plastic bag free day”. On average, plastic bags are used for 25 minutes but it takes between 100 to 500 years for them to disintegrate. And according to Zero Waste Europe, “3.4 million tonnes of plastic carrier bags are produced in the EU every year, the weight of more than two million cars”.2 This take-make-waste model is unsustainable and finding new ways to reduce the production of plastic and reuse items in circulation is key. And it’s easier that you might think. Replacing your disposable plastic bag with a reusable shopping bag, keeping your refillable close by to avoid buying plastic bottles or buying in bulk to reduce plastic packaging are amongst the simplest yet most impactful things to do. Loop, a fast-growing shopping platform, leads the way by embracing a full circularity strategy. Already collaborating with major brands such as Nestlé and Danone, its strategy is that of “the milkman”. They deliver, pick up, clean, and refill.

We are proud to have partnered with Plastic Bank to fight both plastic pollution in oceans, as well as high poverty levels in developing countries. Plastic Bank is a pioneer, building ethical recycling ecosystems in coastal communities, and reprocessing the materials for reintroduction into the global manufacturing supply chain.

 

Rethinking our WILD relationship with plastic

The first step each one of us can take is to rethink our use of plastic by either not using it or sustainably rethinking plastic-based items. This way, we can support the redesign of our wasteful, idle, lopsided and dirty (WILD) economic model and transition towards a CLICTM one. Today, the demand for environmentally-friendly polymers (i.e. biodegradable plastics) is increasing and companies are looking at nature to produce bio-based alternatives.

The first step each one of us can take is to rethink our use of plastic by either not using it or sustainably rethinking plastic-based items

While sugar cane and corn are popular options, their frequent reliance on synthetic fertilisers, use of arable land and tendency for monoculture don’t always make them environmentally friendly. A new alternative is gaining traction – algae. This plant-based, non-toxic alternative to plastic has the same characteristics as petroleum-based plastics, whilst being biodegradable in nature.

The Dutch designers Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros have developed a bioplastic using algae. In their Algae Platform at the Atelier Luma in Camargues, France, they cultivate locally-sourced algae which they dry and process into a material that can be used to print 3D objects. In an interview with Dezeen, the duo said: “Algae is equally interesting for making biomass because it can quickly filter CO2 from the sea and the atmosphere.”

Ways to rethink our relationship with plastic come from all horizons and companies and investors must integrate this new normal in order to build a sustainable future.

 

Making old sexy again

Production must also be rethought to include less virgin plastic by reusing materials, using recycled plastics and remanufacturing existing items to extend their lifespan. The fashion industry, for example, is looking into ways to reduce its impact. The sector accounts for 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions - more than “all international flights and maritime shipping combined”3. So, brands have understood this and are increasingly looking for sustainable textiles to integrate into their lines and alternative options to reduce their production such as renting and second-hand clothing lines. For example, textile companies Repreve and Econyl (recycled nylon waste) are challenging the status quo with innovative alternatives for brands around the world, such as Stella McCartney, Patagonia and Quicksilver.

Rethinking harmful materials, these companies are having a direct impact. Repreve claims to have recycled more than 25 billion plastic bottles for example. In order to create new sustainable products from plastic, the world currently relies on mechanical recycling, yet new ways of processing are emerging. These include chemical recycling, which can create virgin plastic with the same characteristics as normal plastic and keep its value in the long-term.

In order to create new sustainable products from plastic, the world currently relies on mechanical recycling, yet new ways of processing are emerging

Recovering energy and cleaning up the remains

When possible, plastic must be reused or recycled into useful products. However, most of everyday plastic has several layers, making it complicated to recycle, if not impossible. Yet engineers have found a way to convert it into electricity, synthetic gas, fuels and recycled feedstocks.

However some plastic cannot be recycled or recovered. The decomposition of plastic is the hardest amongst all the general commodities. But natural processes can help. Where man has created problems through pollution, nature has fought back. Shellfish, for example, can clean over 65,000 litres of polluted water a year, and they never switch off. Algae, particularly microalgae, can degrade plastic materials through toxins systems or enzymes synthesised by the microalgae itself.

The transition to a waste-free, clean, sustainable future is underway and every sector has a role to play in rethinking their impact to invest in a better future

A zero-waste world for tomorrow

“Plastic pollution is not only an environmental tragedy, it is also economically imprudent—billions of dollars of economic value are “thrown away” after a single, short use,” states Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ in a new report called “Breaking the Plastic Wave”. Conversely, the report outlines options for the application and investment in technologies, management practices, and policy approaches to reduce plastic waste. If these approaches were pursued, the report states, in 20 years there would be about an 80 per cent reduction from the current trajectory in the flow of plastic into the ocean. Such a scenario would, the report argues, save governments US$70 billion globally over this same time period.4

The transition to a waste-free, clean, sustainable future is underway and every sector has a role to play in rethinking their impact to invest in a better future.

 

1 BreakingThePlasticWave_SummaryReport.pdf (systemiq.earth)
2 Plastic Bag Free Day - Zero Waste Europe
3 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/fashion-industry-carbon-unsustainable-environment-pollution/
4 BreakingThePlasticWave_SummaryReport.pdf (systemiq.earth)

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