Greening the Future to Save our Blue Planet

Recently it seems plastic has become public enemy number one, an annoyingly convenient menace that we can’t seem to cut from our lives. Aside from single-use items, this is understandable, with plastic providing more lightweight fuel-efficient cars, preserving our food, insulating our homes on those frosty winter nights and generally making the everyday aspects of life simpler. While many remain quick to fault the systems that manufacture this product, plastic’s popularity and subsequent problems have arisen rapidly alongside our population boom, giving world leaders little time to keep up.

Currently up to 4% of plastic produced each year winds up in our oceans, with packaging dominating nearly 40% of plastic demand. So can a new economy be earth’s saviour?

A circular economy moves away from our traditional ‘take, make, waste’ society where resources are drained from the earth and transformed into the items we see gleaming in shop windows, often designed to break or fall out of fashion rapidly to guarantee future sales. Once our possessions are unwanted, they often travel to landfill, incinerators or sneakily adventure off into the environment where any further human use is lost. The new circular model halts this escapism, designed to keep waste out of our world by sustaining our materials in constant use, all the while reducing landfill, resource extraction and carbon emissions.

With regard to plastic, the aim is for all items to be either reusable, recyclable or compostable. For single-use products, compostable items are being designed from materials such as corn starch, with biodegradable plastic bin bags degrading within 1 year and alternative takeaway containers degrading in 6 months, although this is dependent on surrounding temperature. These products leave no toxic traces in the soil and act as food for more plant-based resources to grow. For those durable items such as computers, hardier plastic will be used with disassembly and re-use in mind, removing the blend of chemical additives to allow a more straight forward recycling process. In the future, this may mean we ‘rent’ our possessions, paying, for example, for our one use of a tyre before the manufacturer whisks it away to be remoulded into something new.

Currently, recycled plastic only meets 6% of industry’s demand, yet the EU has set its ambitious sights firmly on the new business model. By 2030, a mere 10 years away, all plastic packaging in the EU will be reusable or recyclable at an affordable price. Governments aren’t stopping there as we wait for this new economy to take off, recently cracking down on the top 10 beach polluters, including cotton buds, balloons, food containers and fishing gear with the UK already banning straws and cotton buds with campaigns focussing on banning cigarettes on beaches next. The notion of ‘extended producer responsibility’ is also traversing Europe, with brands increasing the cost of their products and, in return, making themselves responsible for the environmental clean-up of their packaging. With many businesses profit-orientated, this new obligation is sparking innovation for biodegradable packaging to reduce their clean-up costs.

In fact, there are many countries around the globe introducing promising laws regarding plastic pollution. For example, Sweden reduces waste by halving the tax added to labour in repair industries; New Delhi in India, home to 20 million citizens, banned single-use plastics in 2017; Kenya fines and even puts people behind bars for selling or manufacturing plastic bags while Costa Rica aspires to be the first country to completely ban single-use plastic by 2021 in a move to protect its environment and its population’s livelihoods.

It’s easy to forget the optimistic steps our world is taking but that’s not to say we can sit back and relax, confident that someone else is solving our issue. To continue our good work, national authorities shouldn’t stop at banning bags and straws when plastic dominates each room in our houses. The government is essential for change, holding the power to influence industrial actions, the source of plastic and its journey to the sea. In order to hurry along our changes, making sure governments stick to their pledges while also introducing the likes of deposit return schemes, society remains an essential source of pressure. You can do this in several ways from joining an environmental organisation’s campaign, signing petitions, attending environmental strikes, protests or pressure groups or promoting issues to your local community and MP. Just be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into first!

Our next blog will cover the confusing topic of recycling; why is plastic so tricky to re-use, what can we actually recycle and how can we help at home?

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair