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Drowning in plastic: Why plastics are here to stay, and what is being done about it

Since Bakelite was revealed in 1907 as the first synthetic plastic, this lightweight, strong and mouldable class of materials has helped to make the modern world. Heralded as a ‘miracle material’ with many uses across all aspects of our daily lives, our relationship with plastics is a complicated one. 

While it has uses in everyday items, it also appears essential in the creation of a more sustainable society in the long term. It will play a key role in the phasing out of fossil fuels, being used to manufacture essential components of electric vehicles, wind turbines and other sustainable energy sectors. Additionally, future technology sectors such as robotics, electronics, personalised healthcare, and diagnostics each rely on the development of better plastic materials. This is, however, at a very high environmental cost. 

Pollution linked to the plastic industry, either during the production process or through their disposal after usage, is a problem with disastrous ramifications for ecosystems globally. Due to its virtual indestructibility, an estimated 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be sitting in landfills or polluting the natural environment by 2050. For comparison, this number stood at around 4.9 billion tonnes in 2015.

At the last United Nations Environmental Program meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2019, negotiations to pass a resolution calling for phasing out single-use plastic by 2025 and to draft a legally binding treaty on plastic debris ended in a stalemate. Following a resolution adopted unanimously at the 5th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in 2022, countries have started negotiating a legally binding international treaty on plastic pollution, addressing the full life cycle of plastics, with the ambition of completing negotiations by the end of 2024.

Studies over the years lay the blame on the rate of plastic production growth being too high compared to the rate at which the world can collect and repurpose plastic waste. A recent paper published by leading academics and researchers at Oxford looking at technical, economic and policy changes to deal with this crisis, calls for a “bold system change” and upheaval. It lays out a roadmap for 2050 to achieve a 50% reduction in future plastic demand, the complete phase-out of fossil-derived plastics, 95% recycling rates of retrievable plastics and the use of renewable energy- all of which would be necessary to meet current emission targets and UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Studies over the years lay the blame on the rate of plastic production growth being too high compared to the rate at which the world can collect and repurpose plastic waste

These ambitious goals would require hard work and persistence in pushing policy changes, and a departure from ‘business-as-usual’. Significant challenges remain, including improving the fiscal benefits of implementing these changes. It remains much cheaper to produce virgin plastic—new resin created from natural gas or oil— as compared to collecting, sorting and processing plastic waste. Moreover, the infrastructure to process this waste doesn’t exist at a large enough scale, with only about 14% of all plastics having been recycled, and significant barriers to the development of this infrastructure in developing countries—some of the largest growing markets for plastic products.

Plastic production is only expected to grow as demand continues to increase— going up to 756 million tons anticipated in 2050 from 308 million tons produced in 2018, according to a report published by the American Chemistry Council in 2019. 

Furthermore, plastic manufacturing companies have been reluctant to scale down manufacturing. Industry leaders agree that slowing the production of virgin, or unused, plastics is “highly counterproductive and impractical,” and that it will further “aggravate the carbon and climate problem as alternative materials have higher emissions.” While this isn’t always the case, commonly used alternative materials such as glass or aluminium lack the desirable qualities and adaptability of plastics. 

It seems plastics aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, more stringent regulations on managing plastic waste during the whole life cycle of products generated by industry is needed, and government intervention at an international scale is necessary to drive change. This is why the current agreement on plastic pollution being negotiated, described as the equivalent of the Paris climate agreement for plastics pollution, needs to succeed. 

While policy interventions are essential to drive change, the crux of the problem is chemical: achieving the degradation of plastic waste and the reduction of emissions associated with producing them. Chemistry gave us plastics in the first place, and now chemists in both academia and industry are keen to find innovative solutions to alleviate the problems associated with plastic pollution. Watch this space in coming weeks to learn more about the chemistry battling the plastic crisis, with a special emphasis on the research being conducted in Oxford itself!

Image Credit: Nick Fewings via Unsplash

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