Developing a comprehensive approach to plastic pollution

Chris Cheeseman, Professor of Materials Resources Engineering at Imperial College London and affiliate of the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, considers the root cause of ocean plastic pollution, and what can be done to address it.

Blue Planet II focussed public attention on the critical issue of plastics in the oceans, giving it new prominence in the political agenda. It has sparked discussions on the excessive use of plastic packaging, and proposals to ban plastic straws and stirrers in the UK. However, while we should undoubtedly cut down on our excessive use of plastic, the plastics in the ocean problem has just as much to do with poor waste management in developing countries.

Making the connection between harmful ocean plastics and poor waste management

Plastics are amazing materials that make a hugely positive contribution to modern life, but they are used globally in places where effective waste management systems simply do not exist – and that is the main contributor to plastics in the ocean. We have an estimated 2 billion people on the planet who live without a waste collection system – an appalling figure. Ban plastic stirrers if you want, but to have a real impact on plastics in the oceans we need to improve waste management in developing countries.

Developing proper waste management systems for the urban poor costs money. Who will provide the investment needed to make it happen? Who will drive forward change? WasteAid UK are currently doing great work in developing local solutions to waste in developing countries. In doing so, they are addressing the root cause of plastic pollution, helping to develop circular economy solutions, and using waste as a vehicle for social change.

Of course, there’s work to do in the UK too.

Overall, we have a very effective and efficient waste management system in the UK. However, for many years we have exported a significant volume of plastics to China. Now that China has imposed a ban on importing plastics, that outlet has closed. The industry needs to address how it will move forward. Rather than continuing to export waste plastics to other economically developing countries, this ban should act as a driver for innovation, pushing us towards a more circular economy.

As a first step towards a circular economy, product design needs a complete overhaul.

Sustainable design has to take preference over marketing. It seems strange that new products can reach market that are not recyclable. Some multi-component materials, such as the disposable coffee cup, are not easy to recycle. But, put simply, if a material can’t be recycled, it should not be used. Products and packaging have to be designed with ‘end-of-life’ in mind. They need to be designed for circularity; designed to be recycled.

We used to be highly dependent on landfill in UK, but the landfill tax led to huge diversion of waste to other outlets – proving it to be an effective financial driver to change behaviour. Could there be a similar incentive to encourage businesses to ditch products that are difficult to recycle?

Design innovation is a huge opportunity

At Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering, the importance of end-of-life and sustainable design is a core element of the training – as I expect it is at other design schools. Some of our students have gone on to create novel materials from waste products, such as Aeropowder, a start-up that re-uses some of the thousands of tonnes of waste chicken feathers produced in Britain’s poultry industry to create a new range of materials for use in thermal and sound insulation products.

Smart innovation like this is key to a circular economy – and it represents a huge opportunity for businesses. Just take a look at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 for a taster of the benefits!

Read more from Professor Chris Cheeseman on the Grantham Institute blog: Don’t blame plastic, blame poor waste management

Chris Cheeseman is Professor of Materials Resources Engineering at Imperial College London and affiliate of the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment