When plastic was first developed by British inventor Alexander Parkes in the early 1860s it was hailed as something of a miracle substance. Light, durable, easy to sterilise, cheap to make – nothing else could match it.
Jump forward 150 years and the need for these properties, which help to protect and preserve goods, and which benefit the way we travel and communicate, is being actively questioned. To many, plastic is a visible product that symbolises over half a century of rampant consumerism, exacerbated by a bloated world population and is becoming one of the biggest environmental disasters of the modern world.
Plastic has transformed society for the better … but not the environment.
Plastic remains unchallenged in terms of its beneficial properties and has gone on to be refined into a plethora of variations, all with different uses. As a result, it’s come to inhabit just about every aspect of our lives. Be it the clothing on our backs, the electronics we use, the vehicles we drive, the toys our children play with, the medical equipment which saves and sustains lives, and the credit cards we too frequently flex.
It’s even used to glue some teabags together, makes up about 50% of the volume of modern aircraft, and enables us to own televisions as thin as paintings.
Despite negative press, plastic does actually offer a number of environmental benefits. Its light weight, durability and efficient production generally result in fewer carbon emissions over its lifetime compared to other materials.
Consider how much extra steel would be needed for a car or plane which had no plastic in it, and how much heavier and less fuel efficient they would be. Plastic piping requires far less energy to make than metal alternatives and its durability reduces the chance of water loss through leaks. The list goes on.
Food packaging is where we interact with plastic in the most tangible and arguably the most wasteful way. Here too it has a purpose – prolonging shelf life and keeping food safe. This reduces emissions by preventing perishable food from ending up in landfill.
Today the consumer eagerly and rightly questions excessive packaging, but there’s more to the story. Consider the humble plastic-wrapped cucumber. The simple plastic protective sheath means it stays fresh for around 21 days, rather than just seven.
Change is coming
Now I’m not saying there isn’t a global problem with plastics, there is, but change is coming. Two significant Ministry for the Environment announcements have been made over the past year (declaring plastic packaging a priority product, and proposing a ban on some plastics), while the Waste Minimisation Act 2008 is being put to full use.
We are also seeing increasing action by the packaging industry – driven by consumer awareness and demand for greater sustainability, and by Government action – with major industry players having pledged to make their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.
There is also some exciting innovation happening. Compostable and biodegradable food packaging and fruit stickers, compostable food packets, kiwifruit knives made of kiwifruit skin, bird netting clips made of grape marque, and soft plastic made into fence posts are just a few examples.
Internationally, innovation that turns waste plastic into useful, valuable items or replaces plastic with environmentally-friendly alternatives makes the news just about every week. Clothing made from shopping bags, houses made from plastic bottles, sports equipment made from old fishing nets, and edible straws and packaging are just a few examples.
Here in New Zealand we’re also seeing more manufacturers and producers move to plastic types which can be recycled onshore and facilities exist to recycle PET, HDPE, LDPE and PP – plastics with the recycling symbol 1, 2, 4 and 5 on them. However, the capacity for collecting and recycling them varies greatly and doesn’t come close to recycling it all.
Better informed consumers are demanding change and we are facing a pinch point where existing infrastructure and services are struggling to keep pace. Supermarkets have moved to PET (type 1) plastic baking and butchery trays, yet very few kerbside recycling collections offer a collection for these products nationally. Products claiming to be compostable and biodegradable suffer from a lack of localised processing capability able to cater for these emerging packaging types.
Beyond the recycling bin
Recycling also doesn’t have to be limited to what we put in the bin at kerbside. PP (5) is used in a huge array of products from furniture to televisions, computers, toys, food containers and car parts.
Take car bumpers, as an example of a potentially huge, untapped resource, with approximately 1,400 tonnes of type 5 plastic going to landfill each year. We are currently working on a recycling project for them, and while it’s in the early stages our trial work shows potential.
However, despite all this promise of a better future it’s important to keep in mind the amount of plastic produced globally each year is still increasing at an alarming rate. And there is still a problem around excess, overuse and general disregard for the environmental danger plastic poses.
Change certainly starts with us as individuals and by taking simple steps – a refillable water bottle, use your own container for takeaway sushi, have a look at what type of plastic an item is made of – can it be recycled or better yet is it made of recycled material – and let that sway you on whether to purchase it or not.
We need to replace our view of plastic as a throwaway material with one which respects it, both for its potential to cause harm and to be used for good.