Due to the environmental impact of their improper disposal, there is growing pressure to rethink our use of, and dependency on, plastics - especially single use plastics.
Indeed, since the build-up of plastics in the ocean was highlighted by the BBC’s Blue Planet II in late 2017, there has been a backlash against their use with some even demanding the creation of a plastic-free world.
While plastics pose undeniable environmental challenges, they also enhance our lives and contribute to global progress. Their lightweight nature, excellent barrier properties and ductility help reduce carbon emissions and food waste thus providing a potential net positive to the environment.
Plastics are relevant to progress in at least six of the UN sustainable development goals: from helping to secure food growth and lifetime (SDG2) to enhancing health (SDG3) and being critical to the delivery of affordable and clean energy (SDG7). Perhaps surprisingly, it has been estimated that the environmental cost of plastic alternatives is estimated to be 3.8 times higher than plastic itself.
Despite the technological benefits of living in the “plastic age” the fact that over the last 70 years we have polluted large parts of our planet with plastics, puts their environmental, economic and health benefits at risk. It also places plastics at the centre of one of the most emotional discourses of our century.
Most plastics are designed for single use, with an intended lifetime of less than one year. Without external intervention, however, they do not break down and hence they persist in our environment for decades or even centuries. Herein lies the plastics paradox: although we desire our plastics to be readily recyclable or not to persist in the environment, they must also be sufficiently robust to function in their desired application.
Never has our reliance on plastic been highlighted more clearly than through the current COVID-19 pandemic. Plastic has become essential. It’s low cost to manufacture, ease of sterilisation and durability has enabled its rapid and widespread use as essential protective wear for key workers – a mode of use that is now being more widely used in the community. Again, this new mode of plastic use is obvious to see with used masks and gloves more visible than items that we are perhaps used to seeing as litter and waste. In turn, this highlights that the critical problem with plastic is how we use, interact with, and dispose of it. Even plastic that is responsibly disposed of can end up in the environment via landfill or export from our shores. Incineration of waste plastic releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses which in turn contribute to climate change.
Clearly, our continued unsustainable use of plastic products cannot continue. It is reasonable to say that plastics should actually be a part of maintaining a healthy environment. However, what we use, and the way in which we use them, must be changed to encourage responsible production and consumption. This is a complex, multi-faceted problem that will not be solved solely by a new wonder plastic, new recycling systems or better public education – they will all contribute to creating a better and more sustainable environment - but lasting change requires a more holistic view of the whole of the problem together. In this way, development of understanding and potential solutions will be greater than the sum of the parts.
The University’s Birmingham Plastics Network, formed in 2018, brings together a diverse group of researchers from every corner of our campus to consider all aspects of plastics - from the human, environmental, economic, regulatory, political and technological. Together the Network is working to understand the drivers and conditions of our current relationship with plastic and, in turn, seeking to develop real-world, achievable, informed solutions to inform how and what our future with plastics should look like.