A good news story on plastics and water…?

Posted on by Watershed Issues Team

Beach strewn with plastic pollution

There are a lot of negative stories out there on plastics – their overuse, their inherent unsustainability, their impact on the environment affecting water quality, posing a threat to both marine life and human health…

And rightly so; it’s estimated that more than 8m tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year, and their ill-effects are undeniable. The UN has moved to make sanctions on the use of products in disposable and short-lifespan products, while the UK environment secretary has pledged to take action.

The problem is not a simple one to address; in the short time of their existence, plastics have transformed almost everything, from clothing and household goods, to medical and manufacturing processes. With that in mind, there are established behaviours within our society and culture that will have to be addressed before real change can occur.

Despite the gravity of the problem, there are positives that can be drawn from what some describe as “an environmental scourge”. After all – innovation is nothing if not imaginative problem solving, and it stands to reason that the bigger the problem, the better the innovation has to be.

Here, we look at the ways in which the epidemic issue is giving rise to invention and is shining a spotlight on talent within the scientific and engineering sectors.

Down with drinks bottles!

Drinks bottles are one of the most common types of plastic waste. It’s estimated that 35m are used – and discarded – each day, but only 19m are recycled.

There have been a number of forward-thinking schemes and innovations hitting the headlines in recent months and years, tackling the overuse of plastic bottles specifically:

  • Some UK retailers have been trialling a deposit return scheme, wherein consumers effective pay a refundable ‘deposit’ on the drinks container at the point of purchase, which they can claim back upon receipt of the empty container. The aim is to increase recycling rates by incentivising consumers to return them to store. Other countries have seen success using this method; Norway, for example, now sees 96% of all bottles returned. There is also talk of this being mandated by government.
  • The same Environmental Audit Committee that discussed the above Deposit Return Scheme has also discussed a requirement to provide a network of water refill points throughout public premises in the UK, with the aim to decrease the use of single-use bottles.
  • While the above solutions are nothing new, Skipping Rocks Lab – a scientific team in Imperial College – has produced Ooho! Water, or “Water You Can Eat”; a biodegradable sphere made of plants and seaweed that aims to revolutionise the way in which we consume drinks on-the-go.

Big brand buy-in

Getting big brands to buy in can be a real coup when attempting to raise awareness on an issue, and there are no shortage of big brands lining up to prove their waterwise plastic policies.

  • Adidas is working with Parley – an organisation which aims to raise awareness of the issue of ocean pollution through art and collaboration – to commit to using recycled plastic in its production, limiting the use of virgin plastic in its supply chain.
  • Unilever is working “towards a new plastics economy”, aiming to be using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. It acknowledges its part in the problem, as a “large user of plastic packaging” and is championing the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ‘New Plastic Economy’ model. Following a simple redesign, it has seen a reduction in packaging waste per consumer by 28% since 2010.
  • Both IKEA and Coca Cola have experimented with bio-based packaging – IKEA with Mycelium, a fungus-based material, and Coca Cola with its PlantBottle Technology™, the first fully-recyclable PET plastic bottle. Coca Cola has recently been criticised for failing to address the “urgency” of the situation however, since it sells more than 100bn single use bottles in a year.

Two minds are better than one

Mobilised against the problem of plastic in the oceans, the issue has given rise to initiatives within existing organisations, as well as entirely new enterprises founded specifically to tackle it, for example:

  • The Ellen McCarthur Foundation exists more generally to promote a circular economy. It launched a $2m innovation prize to help keep plastic out of the ocean.
  • Precious Plastic is an independent global community set up to find a solution for the problem of plastic pollution. https://preciousplastic.com/
  • The Ocean Clean Up founded by Boyan Slat when he was just 18, a non-profit organization, developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. They say: “Big problems require big solutions” https://www.theoceancleanup.com/about/

Indeed, innovation is nothing if not imaginative problem solving, and it is possible to see that this particular problem – that of plastic waste and its effect on water – is giving rise to copious inventions, advancements and innovations. However, communications initiatives, commercial and governmental buy-in and broader education are needed for these smaller scale innovations to find traction. Is enough being done?

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