Recently I was invited to give a lecture at the very interesting 13th International Conference on the Recycling & Recovery of Plastics.  More than 300 representatives of the European plastics industry were gathered in Vienna for an intensive two-days interaction that included a lot of innovative approaches and questions for the future of the plastic industry. This invitation was a great opportunity to deal with one of the most important global challenges of our era, the challenge of plastic pollution.

The video below shows, in just less than 5 minutes, my presentation in the event. I suggest my readers to have a view before reading some of the key-points that follow.

Here are some of the thoughts I presented.

The problem with plastics is that they are too successful as materials and they have too many crucial applications. The reason for the successful replacement of traditional materials such as metals, wood and glass in a diverse range of applications is quite simply the ability to modify the properties of plastics to meet a vast array of designers’ needs. They provide unbelievable solutions to each and every part of our daily lives, including the mental satisfaction related with successful plastic surgeries.

We are actually living into a huge, multidimensional and continuously expanding plastic matrix

But the real problem is even more complex and difficult: we are actually living into a huge, multidimensional and continuously expanding plastic matrix and that obliges us to think twice each and every intervention we make. This is the key-element that seems to be somehow underestimated in many discussions. Plastics are not external for our world, they are an integral part that connects, strengthens, builds, resolves, transports and pollutes.

There are two dimensions related with plastic waste. The first is related with the so-called plastic paradox. Actually what happens is that the more we are able to produce more plastic products with less resources, the more the consumption was stimulated and the more plastic waste were created. As it has been mentioned by the authors of the report STEMMING THE TIDE Land-based strategies for a plastic- free ocean:

The inevitable forces of innovation and cost optimization mean that companies that manufacture and use plastic resin are constantly seeking to dematerialize their products. This dematerialization makes plastic an even more compelling material with even more uses. But it also has an unintended consequence: at the end of each product’s current use, there simply is not enough economic value to make collection of the material for conventional recycling financially viable”.

single-use plastics, marine litter, ocean plastics, plastics ban, disposable plastics, recycling, circular economy

The other one is that as Stouffer has said, back in 1963, “the future of plastics is in the trash can” and this is certainly true for more and more single-use products. Single use plastics are probably the ones more related with the different forms of plastic pollution and waste. They provide convenience in a low economic but high environmental cost. It is especially this sort of products that should be subject to major shifts in design. Moving away from single use products requires also a big cultural shift to the consumers’ side.

On the other side, we are watching the rise of a global movement against plastic bags and single-use plastics. We still do not know the exact outcome of those movements but some data already show that they increase substantially the use of plastic or textile reusable bags and paper bags and decrease  the use of single-use plastic bags. But they also bring another message to be taken into consideration: the plastic industry must consider very carefully its responsibility for “plastic pollution”. A position like “plastic pollution is the cost of plastic convenience” is not the proper response. As long as we continue to live in a materialized world, the question is not how to avoid plastics but how to find the right balance between their functionality and their post-use impacts. We need the right tools for such a discussion and we have them: it’s called Life Cycle Analysis.

This is a very usual question we face when we go to the super markets. Paper or plastic bags? Although the traditional easy answer is paper, this is definitely not true. The problem is that what is called “environmental folklore” has become from a background noise a mainstream political correct message that answers the question without any scientific evidence. But the truth is different. The truth, as supported by many studies, is that reusable plastic bags are better from both the paper bags and the single-use plastic ones. Even if you compare single-use plastic bags with paper bags the result is in favor of the plastic ones. But the unit environmental footprint itself says nothing. You have to link it with the amounts of single-use plastic bags we use to get a meaningful conclusion. It seems that paper bags have higher overall environmental impacts but single-use plastic bags create more littering and through their slow degradation contribute to Marine Litter. But clearly, if we shift to replace all single-use plastic bags with paper bags, we are doing the wrong thing for the planet.

Costas Velis, ISWA, plastic recycling, waste management, circular economy, closing the loops, resource management

This is why I do believe that we have to go beyond recycling for plastics. The New Plastic Economy report highlights the concepts for an industrial shift, but we need also to address some other elements.

1.Recycling is definitely lower in the waste hierarchy than waste prevention and reuse. Although for certain plastic streams recycling is meaningful, there are important technical, social, and economic barriers that do not allow its further development. In fact, in certain cases in advanced countries, the more we focus to increase plastic recycling e.g from 50 to 60% the more we mislead the efforts required for waste prevention and reuse and we spend valuable resources for a very small benefit.

2.Recycling markets are both problematic, due to their close linkages with the commodity markets, and seriously disrupted by the emergence of new materials

3.We have to recognize that for certain plastics recycling is not and probably will never be the right solution. Read carefully the report “Circular Economy: Closing the loops“, written by Costas Velis for the ISWA Task Force on Resource Management about some very important barriers to plastic recycling.

4.The targets set on w/w% basis are not really meaningful because they do not involve the different material qualities and the benefits from their recycling.

5.Recycling can’t be an alibi for an endless consumption growth.

I believe that we need to reframe the problem of plastics and try to face it in the framework of the new unprecedented opportunities of the 4th Industrial Revolution. We really have the opportunity for a plasticless future.

But we have to focus on the most important problem. Recently, microplastics were discovered in Mariana trench, the deepest and remotest place of the world. What can we learn from that?

  • Microplastics are becoming part of the ecosystem and they will continue to increase their concentration for many years – it is the same case as with Climate Change and CO2. We need a similar approach to manage it, it is a global challenge not just a problem of pollution.
  • We have to shift our idea about ecosystems and their conservation. Pretending that we can restore the ecosystems, as they were before the microplastics invention is meaningless and misleading. We have to deal and understand the new ecosystem created and try to develop a long-term plan for its management of it.
  • Part of this plan is definitely to reduce single use plastics and improve waste management worldwide, but this is just the beginning of the effort required.

The problem of plastics requires a rethink not just about plastics but also about our dominant economic model, our development strategies and the future of consumption  -have a look at “Waste as Economic Strategy” for some more ideas. This is why it’s one of the most difficult challenges of our world that deserves more attention by all of us.

Regarding the solution required, I believe that we need a combination of a New Operational System for Plastics as  José Luis Gutiérrez-García recently detailed with a cultural shift against endless consumption and growth.

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