Additional research is urgently needed to improve our understanding of plastics and their impacts, to secure a sustainable future for a material that fulfills vital roles in society, according to an international union of chemical scientists, business leaders and members of government.
A new report, published today, incorporates the presentations, discussions and conclusions of more than 30 scientists from the annual Chemical Sciences and Society Summit hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry in London in November. Researchers and industry representatives from the UK, China, Germany and Japan gathered to discuss four major themes in sustainable plastics: their impact on the environment; new sustainable plastics; the recyclability of plastics; and the degradation of plastics.
Their goal was to assess the current status of sustainable plastics, identify the most pressing research challenges in this area and make recommendations about how the issues should be addressed.
“The starting assumption that plastic is bad is probably not a sensible one,” Professor Charlotte Williams, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, who attended the summit, told Forbes.
“The plastic problem, as known by the general public, is really focused on disposable, single-use packaging and there’s a very serious problem there, that is technical, societal and infrastructure related. But actually plastics and polymers are useful for lots and lots of applications, including much cleaner technologies of the future.
“So things like electric vehicles, alternative energy, medical advances, new furnishing, new clothes, new components within shampoo. They all contain plastic polymers. They all have polymeric components, so if we want a future with more drones and robots, we’re going to need better plastics,” Williams said.
The report identifies four major research challenges:
1. Understand the impacts of plastics throughout their life cycles…from obtaining raw materials and manufacturing plastics, to better recycling and disposal options and fully understanding all the environmental impacts.
2. Develop new sustainable plastics…that allow plastics to be manufactured, processed and recycled with minimal negative impact to the environment.
3. Closed loop plastics recycling…including in separating mixtures and composites into single pure polymers, and in enabling chemical recycling.
4. Understand and control plastic degradation…the focus should be on developing products that are both recyclable and environmentally degradable so they can be degraded to non-toxic biochemicals after multiple reuse or recycles.
The plastic problem remains a major pollution issue that is all too often overlooked or ignored. An investigation by The Guardian revealed that an alarming number of cities around the US are not recycling many types of renewable plastic. Instead, they are being landfilled, burned or stockpiled and so massive amounts of recyclable material is ending up as garbage.
And the problem isn’t just limited to the US – it’s global. In India, trash piles are now so high, they need aircraft warning lights. It’s believed that one of Delhi’s trash mountains, in the north-east region of the area, receives nearly 2,000 tons of additional trash each day.
This report, entitled Science to Enable Sustainable Plastics, brings together the expertise from an international group of scientists, not just chemistry professors or academics, but researchers working in engineering, in the environmental sciences and involved detecting and measuring the impact of plastics.
“We have come together to say that this is a big problem – but it’s a technically solvable problem,” Williams said. “We use plastics because they can do things other materials cannot. We have an opportunity and an obligation to think about how we can re-design plastics to make them fully sustainable and fit for purpose, both for existing applications and for those we will need tomorrow. In the process, we must aim to reduce and even reverse some of the damage plastic pollution has already caused.”
An animated feature by Reuters shows the staggering number of single-use plastic bottles being bought across the world. Every day, 1.3 billion bottles are used, the equivalent of a bottle pile half the size of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Over the last 10 years, 4 trillion bottles have been sold and that’s enough to form a pile 2.4km high, dwarfing Manhattan and covering half of Brooklyn. Data from Euromonitor International shows that more than 480 billion of these bottles were sold in 2018 alone. The 2018 annual figure of almost 482 billion is up more than 50% since 2009.
Alternatives to plastic are being explored in a number of ways, including one made from shrimp shells, one made from prickly pear cacti and a prototype that can be indefinitely recycled. Progress has even been made with an enzyme that can break down polyethylene terephthalate plastic. But they are all a long way from being commercially viable and operational on an industrial scale.
According to the EPA, Americans recycle less than 10 percent of the plastics they’ve used. This isn’t just down to laziness, many plastics simply cannot be effectively recycled. Even the most suitable plastic is only recycled at a rate of 20-30%, with the rest typically going to incinerators or landfills, where the carbon-rich material takes up to 1,000 years to decompose. As it does, toxins leak into the environment and can cause a variety of health issues, including reproductive problems and cancer.
“We need to see that research is happening, that’s critical, because we’re not talking about small, immediate term changes, we’re talking about how do you technically get this issue right and get it to be much more sustainable than it is at the moment,” Williams said.
“I think the challenge for governments and corporations is what actions are the best ones to take. And this is where we hope that our report can really help guide the key areas in which we need innovation. That’s really our primary objective here, not to focus on consumer behavior, instead to focus on technically what needs to change.”