Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Plastic Resolution


As we discussed in the previous piece, plastic is so engrained in our lives and in the modern global economy, that it seems impossible to imagine a modern world without it. But we can, and in fact we must, if we are to avoid some of the catastrophic damage that lays ahead due to our excessive plastic use and wastage.

So, how can we reduce our reliance on plastic- what is the Plastic Resolution?

Firstly, we can establish that change has to happen on multiple levels of society. We can broadly categorise these into three: the individual, the business, and the government.

Secondly, we must understand that plastic will not go away tomorrow. As it has taken decades and decades for plastic to find its way into mass usage, it is likely to take even longer to find substitutes for all the various plastics we use for different purposes. But every effort has to start somewhere!

To start the war against plastic, it's most important to approach and resolve the most frequent offender- single use plastics. As the name suggests, these are plastics which are simply used once and then are disposed.

Single use plastics are what comes to the minds of most when we envisage the harm caused by plastics to wildlife. We all have heard of plastic soft drink bottles piling up in our seas, animals dying after mistaking plastic bags for food, or getting trapped in plastic packaging. Single use plastics are so dangerous to the environment in large part because there is such high demand for them. Every time you get a coffee to go, every time you go shopping, every time you buy a bottle of water, another single use plastic is added to the wastepile after you finish.

The government's 5p plastic bag charge, introduced in 2015,
proved successful in reducing use of plastic bags
The British government has already begun to take on single use plastics. The 5p minimum charge for plastic bags introduced in 2015 was designed to encourage shoppers to use reusable bagging, and it saw dramatic success-with an estimated 83% reduction in plastic bags issued by the country's biggest retailers. The government will be extending this charge to include small businesses this year.

Further legislation was also put in place in January 2018, including a ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetic products.

While such actions are indeed crucial steps for the governments of the world to take, many argue further can be done by the government, specifically to influence business behaviour. Some believe the stick approach works best- for example, making businesses pay for the recycling of the plastic packaging they sell. Others argue for the carrot- a more incentives-based approach. This could mean a policy like setting targets for businesses to reduce plastic waste, and rewarding them appropriately.

However, without research and development, businesses could be left with no choice but to continue using harmful plastics. With its unique properties and versatility, there's a reason why plastic is so commonly used in products- and to find equally cost effective and versatile substitutes is no easy task.

There is a strong argument that businesses should bring back materials previously used- such as glass for soft drinks, paper for grocery bags, or steel for cups. While such materials may well see a comeback, they have their foibles- and to find a substitute for plastic that keeps all its benefits, a lot of research and development will need to be done. This will need to be supported by the government, but equally businesses are responsible for funding and supporting such activities.

So we've now moved onto business- what can business do to reduce plastic waste?

This is a complex question; specifically because for most businesses, plastic is the most cost-effective material for packaging. Thus, investing potentially considerable resources into finding an alternative will not be an appealing prospect from a strictly financial perspective.

This is when Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR for short) comes into play. As entities that both give and take to society, businesses must accept the role they have played in creating the current chaos (with relative innocence, it can be argued), but more importantly accept the role they now have to help society fix those problems- by investing in finding alternatives to plastic. This may not be a profit-driven decision (though it could well be, as we'll explore shortly), but it is one that is crucial for our society's resolution to the plastic problem.

The government, through offering financial incentives for environmentally friendly behaviour, can ease this transition for businesses. However, the primary customers of most businesses are ultimately us- the end individuals, as consumers.

Therefore it is imperative that we as individuals are careful about what we consume. We should avoid single use plastics- and the best way to do this is to reuse. Get a reusable coffee cup, get a reusable solid liquid container, get a reusable bag, and make sure you recycle whatever plastic you can't substitute. Even something as small as buying a bigger plastic tub of yoghurt rather than several small tubs can help- as buying in bulk generally reduces the packaging-to-content ratio.

And when businesses aren't conscious about minimising their plastic waste, we should be conscious not to award them our business. As consumers we often forget our power, when we act in unison. Businesses acting irresponsibly should be punished for their failure to serve the environment, and businesses doing their bit should be rewarded. This serves a similar purpose to financial services offered by the government to businesses; it makes it easier and more financially appealing for businesses to minimise plastic waste.

However, it is often easier said than done to be entirely conscious about your plastic usage as an individual. The large majority of people still use single use coffee cups, for example.

Here, businesses can help us to behave more responsible. For example, reward schemes for using a reusable coffee cups are standard across many major coffee shops in the UK, and you can get supermarket loyalty points for reusing any carrier bags. These things make it more appealing and easy for us as consumers to avoid plastic, or at least use it responsibly. At the same time, government policies such as the 5p plastic bag charge push us to be more considerate.

Single use plastics remain the primary issue the world needs to tackle; once we are able to confront this, the battle for a future less clogged with plastic bottles is half-won, and we can perhaps continue to look at phasing out plastic entirely.

The fact is that the main onus is on businesses, as the primary producers of these plastic products, to reduce plastic waste. And of these businesses, the largest and most influencial hold the most responsibility. Once a company like 'Coca-Cola' takes a clear stance against plastic waste, for example by replacing all plastic bottles with glass bottles, the industry will be sure to react. The government, and we as consuming individuals, need to do our best to foster the conditions in which such a decision might be made.

The fight against plastic waste is a classic example of how the government, businesses and individuals can, and must, all interact as members of society to incentivise each other to behave better. By each accepting their responsibilities and burdens, the unity of these three groups has the long-term potential to create our Plastic Resolution
Mohammad Lone Editor

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Plastic Nightmare



Plastic is something we deal with at almost every moment of our lives. From our household goods, to our cars, computers, Amazon packages and more, plastic is a seldom-appreciated phenomenon of the modern human age. A miracle of modern chemistry, plastic is arguably the most versatile material out there.

However, our use of plastic in today's world exemplifies one of our greatest weaknesses, actually raised out of one of our greatest strengths: we can make the world and its resources bow to our needs, but we often fail to attend to the needs of the world. This behaviour has put a whole host of parties at risk- from the earth itself, to our co-habitants, to our very own future generations of humankind.

The most prominent example of such behaviour, and rightly so, is the phenomenon of pollution. Air pollution scars the lives of many inhabitants of today's sprawling metropoles of the world, while putting the very future of our entire Earth at risk.

Though a known concern for many years, the way we use plastic has come under the spotlight in recent months. The primary issue with plastic comes with its lack of biodegradability; meaning, left undealt with in landfill or in oceans as it is in many places today, it will not go away. Plastic waste will simply pile up.

And boy, has it been piling up.

We produce over 300 million tonnes of plastic each year; 8 million tonnes of which is dumped into the ocean, according to plasticoceans.org. At the current rate, it is estimated that by 2050 the plastic waste in our seas will outweigh all the fish.

Yes, an increasing amount of waste plastic is now being recycled; but still, a shocking 91% of plastic worldwide isn't recycled. This is usually due to one of two reasons; poor recycling infrastructure and organisation, or the lack of recyclability of many plastics, such as those used in most coffee cups, due to its waterproof nature. We may be encouraged to place our coffee cups in recycling bins, but in reality, just 1 in 400 coffee cups are actually recycled.

As one would expect, this massive influx of plastic waste has has profoundly negative effects on the environment and wildlife.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is one gargantuan example of our failure to deal with our excess plastic. The GPGP is a massive collection of debris, the majority of which consists of plastic. While we tend to imagine this as a mass of plastic bottles and the like drifting in the sea (as pictured on the right), the majority of the GPGP is made of 'microplastics'.

While plastics do not biodegrade, they are broken into smaller and smaller pieces continuously. This results in a dust-like material that never disappears from the oceans.

Microplastics also come from everyday items we use. For example, it was very common for many skincare products and toothpastes to contain microbeads, that supposedly improved the feel of the product on the skin and visual appeal. However, research suggests that microbeads blocked digestive tracts of animals who consumed them- so these luxuries came at an exceedingly high price. On a positive note, more people are coming to realisation about this, as bans on the use of these materials come into play in many countries of the world.

This waste in the oceans wreaks havoc with wildlife. Unaware of the dangers and toxicity of many plastics, small pieces of plastic are often confused with food. A 2015 study found that as many as 9 out of 10 sea birds had plastic in their guts.

There are countless further tragic stories of animals falling victim to our plastic waste. From poisoning to asphyxiation, plastics are the causes of death for estimated millions of animals, both on land and in sea. Whether they are in the form of microbeads, plastic bags, packaging or something else, plastics pose a significant threat to biodiversity, and in the long term could threaten entire species if left undealt with.

Our success in making plastic serve so many of our needs is coming at the cost of our planet. As our land and seas become landfill sites for plastic waste that will never go away, millions of animals are dying, suffering from pains as simple as becoming entangled in plastic six-pack can packaging.

Plastic has indeed served the human race well- but it is time to move on.

So, how can we confront this massive problem of plastic, when we are so dependent on it? We'll discuss what governments, businesses, and we as individuals, are doing and can do to end this chaos in next week's article.

To see how you can influence and get involved in the fight against plastic, join the community at A Plastic Planet.


Mohammad Lone Editor