Plastic pollution has continued to dominate the headlines in 2022 for its continued threat to the environment. According to a BBC article the threat of plastic pollution is as big as climate change, with one report claiming that “the air we breathe now contains plastic microparticles, there’s plastic in arctic snow, plastics in soil, and plastics in our food.”
In the UK, a Parliamentary report has highlighted that a ‘chemical cocktail’ is building in English rivers, canals, and streams. Water is being poisoned with pathogens, chemicals, and microplastics throughout the country. Consequently, this is ruining natural habitats and blue spaces that people are increasingly using for health and wellbeing purposes.
Looking at it on a global scale, it is believed that the amount of plastic in the ocean could outnumber fish in the sea by 2050.
Even brands, such as Coca Cola and Pepsi Co, who are amongst the worst plastic polluters in the world, are calling for a reduction in plastic production in response to the global crisis. These calls may be attempts for the brands to greenwash their own poor record on plastic pollution, however the scale of the plastic problem is laid bare when brands that sell over 100 billion throwaway plastic bottles every year are calling for a curb on the amount of plastic being produced.
In line with these calls for a global pact on plastic production, environmental officials from around the world will be meeting at the United National Environment Assembly conference at the end of February 2022 to negotiate a treaty to tackle plastic pollution. At this point it is unclear whether this treaty will deal with waste management, recycling, or restrictions on plastic production.
Is recycling plastic possible?
There is a huge difference between waste management of plastics and restricting its production when looking to tackle pollution, and different factions of society are supporting different methods. For example, Trisia Farrelly – an anthropologist at Massey University specialising in research around plastics pollution – argues that oil and gas companies are likely to be much more supportive of methods to control plastic waste because they supply the feedstock for most plastics.
Some claim that one way to control plastic waste is to recycle. Countering this, Professor Richard Thompson, from Plymouth University, states that the recycling of plastics will only be effective if there is infrastructure ‘to collect, separate, and viably recycle’ plastics.
Currently, less than 10% of all plastic ever produced has been fully recycled, and an investigation conducted by Reuter found that recycling methods have struggled to keep up with the plastic pollution problem.
This point was backed up by comments from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of COP26. He stated that recycling plastic materials “doesn’t work” and “is not the answer” to saving and helping global oceans and marine wildlife.
Unlike materials like copper, which are part of the circular economy and can be infinitely recycled, studies continue to show that recycling plastic will never be a viable long-term solution to the plastic pollution crisis.
A study by IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network) further supports this notion, as they found that there is very little transparency when it comes to what chemicals are involved in the production of plastic. Therefore, recycling facilities don’t have the ability to exclude plastics with potentially toxic properties.
Considering the chemicals involved in the production of plastic, and its harmful effect on the environment, Canada classified the material as a toxic substance last year, with only 9% of the country’s plastic being recycled each year.
Cutting plastic production is the only way to tackle plastic pollution
Trisia Farrelly confirms that there is now more than enough evidence that plastic pollution could cause ‘irredeemable damage’ unless we act now; there are enough plastic pollution facts to scare anyone.
A landmark 2020 study by Pew Charitable Trusts found that while recycling plastic is still key in controlling plastic pollution, the only way to not let the problem grow at the rate is it now is to put restrictions on the production of plastics.
In fact, 70 influential brands from around the world are calling for a pact to reduce the production and use of virgin plastic. This includes market leaders such as Unilever and Nestle. Therefore, more focus will be placed on the use of recycled plastic while looking for more sustainable and circular alternatives.
One such material is copper. Copper is an example of a material that can multitask due to its unique characteristics. Presently, throughout the UK, it is used to transport our water, generate energy, power our technology, transport, and provide hospital care. Copper can be recycled infinitely without losing performance or properties, making it the ultimate sustainable material to replace plastic.