What can we do about the problem of plastic pollution?

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Three years ago, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation warned that by 2050, there will be more waste plastic in the sea than fish. Without drastic action this bleak forecast will be fulfilled. A recent HSBC report Finding a Plastic-Pollution Solution, states: ‘The truth is that it will be hard to find a solution to plastic pollution. There is not yet an alternative as cheap to produce and as useful as plastic that is less environmentally harmful.’

Since its invention, plastic has been a wonder material: cheap, adaptable, colourful and virtually indestructible in the natural world. The latter has turned plastic into a problem, particularly the single-use plastics favoured by the packaging industry. These difficult-to-recycle items often pollute waterways and are mistaken for food by marine life.

The problem

Plastics are not biodegradable; they fragment into millions of tiny pieces of microplastic. Microplastics also originate from man-made clothing materials and from cosmetics and beauty products. These particles exist inside most creatures in the animal world, humans included. The long-term health consequences of this are as yet unknown.

The impact of these findings has been reinforced by the response to Sir David Attenborough’s BBC Blue Planet II documentary series and growing public knowledge of statistics that exposes the extent of our reliance on single-use plastics.

The world has produced 8.3bn tonnes of plastic waste, 79% of which remains in landfill or the natural environment.1

Solutions

Official targets are helping to drive this transition and the UK government, which began a successful campaign against plastic bags in 2015, backed The UK Plastics Pact. The goal is to eliminate single-use plastics and ensure there is, on average, 30% recycled content in all plastic packaging by 2025.

Solutions to the plastic problem include installing public drinking fountains and using alternative materials, with much effort focused on shifting packaging from plastic to fibre-based alternatives. Then there is creating a secondary market in plastic waste. ‘Reverse vending machines’ exist, which accept empty containers and return a deposit to the consumer.

There are, however, risks of unforeseen consequences. Experts warn that the move to compostable plant-based plastics derived from corn starch could drastically impact crop prices and present problems for feeding the global population.

So, there are challenges facing swathes of companies in many different sectors. Governments adhere to the principle that the polluter should pay: attempts are being made to apply this better to single-use plastics so that manufacturers, packaging firms and retailers all bear an appropriate portion of the cost. MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee have complained that the UK’s fee on producers leaves taxpayers to cover around 90% of the disposal costs of packaging waste.

Yet, there is the opportunity for companies to innovate and differentiate themselves; in other words, to turn themselves into profitable solution providers.

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