As plastics grow in volume at a rate of about nine percent each year, the authors emphasize that tackling its problems means addressing its sustainability.
One solution is to treat plastic as a reusable material rather than as a disposable commodity that’s quickly discarded. That means making plastic more easily recyclable from the get-go by using fewer materials in the manufacturing process and increasing recycling facility availability.
“The recycling message is simple; both industry and society need to regard end-of-life items, including plastics, as raw materials rather than waste,” stated the report.
“Biodegradable plastics have the potential to solve a number of waste-management issues, especially for disposable packaging that cannot be easily separated from organic waste in catering or from agricultural applications,” according to the report.
However, currently production capacity for biodegradable plastics worldwide is around only 350,000 tons, representing less than 0.2 percent of petrochemical-based plastic. In addition, “most of these materials are unlikely to degrade quickly in natural habitats, and there is concern that degradable, oil-based polymers could merely disintegrate into small pieces that are not in themselves any more degradable than conventional plastic,” stated the report.
To help mitigate the potentially harmful chemicals in plastics, the authors recommend that more studies be conducted on the biological mechanisms that may be affected by plastic additives and in particular, low-dose chronic exposures.
In the meantime, the report recommends reducing the use of these chemicals and developing safer alternatives, a strategy known as green chemistry.
“Had this approach been in place 50 years ago it would probably have prevented the development of chemicals that are recognized as likely endocrine disruptors,” the report said.
The report also suggests that plastic waste can be reduced by using labels that allow consumers to choose packaging based on a lifecycle analysis that includes all components of the manufacturing process. For example, if the product were made of mostly recycled materials, used minimal packaging and could be easily recycled, it would get a green dot. If the product were made of excessive packaging that used a lot of virgin materials, it would get a red dot.
“Personally, I feel that’s the way to do it, rather than a knee jerk reaction where legislation says we can’t use certain types of plastic,” said Thompson. “Having that information will help drive the system because I think consumers are keen to make the right choice when provided with all the information.”
Neal of PlasticsEurope said consumers, not the industry, are responsible for making sure plastics don’t wind up littering the environment.
“In my view the responsibility is fairly and squarely on the consumer,” he said. “People tend to pick on plastics because perhaps it’s the most visible form of litter and because it’s lightweight so it can move around a bit, but actually it’s only a small part of the litter problem.”
The authors said that if plastics are made and used responsibly, they can help solve some environmental problems.
For example, one study found that packaging beverages in PET (a type of plastic) versus glass or metal reduces energy use by 52 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent. And, solar water heaters containing plastics can provide up to two-thirds of a household’s annual hot water demand, reducing energy consumption.