Chemists are reimagining recycling to keep plastics out of landfills |  Science News

It’s Plastic Free July! That means the whole month is dedicated to reducing our use of plastic.

Plastic production and the resulting pollution is a major problem for the environment. Estimates suggest that as many as 11 million tonnes of plastic are entering our seas every year. By 2050, there will be more plastic in our sea by weight than fish. Sea creatures are ingesting plastic and getting tangled in it. It is destroying their habitats and leaving coral severely damaged, thus impacting the thousands of species that live in and around coral reefs, as well as reducing the protection that the coral provides to our coastlines.

Why reduce instead of just recycle?

Plastic Free July aims to raise awareness of this damage and of the need to reduce the amount of plastic that we use. The cause is gaining support around the world; according to All Things Hair, some 62.7% of its readers will be participating in Plastic Free July in 2021.

Given the shocking statistics associated with plastic pollution, it’s clear that recycling alone is no longer enough. Some 76.4% of the same readers surveyed by All Things Hair reported that they actively recycle their plastic waste. The finding is in line with other research on this, which estimates that 26% of used plastic in the UK ends up in landfill.

However, even if 100% of people recycled 100% of the plastic items that can be recycled, it still wouldn’t be enough to protect our oceans and other natural environments. Why not? The answer lies in the way that plastic is made.

How is plastic made?

Plastic is made from a range of natural materials. These include cellulose, coal, natural gas and salt. The process begins with another naturally occurring substance: crude oil. The oil is distilled into fractions and one of the fractions – naphtha – is used to make plastics.

There are two main processes used to produce plastics, known as polymerisation and polycondensation. There are also two main types of plastics (along with many subgroups): thermoplastics and thermosets.

Thermoplastics can be softened through heating, reshaped and hardened again through cooling. This means they have the potential to be recycled, though as the material degrades with each use, meaning that some plastic items can only be recycled two or three times. Thermosets, on the other hand, are ‘set’ once they cool. They won’t soften again and are thus near-impossible to recycle.

How fast is our use of plastic increasing?

Despite growing awareness of the environmental harm that plastic is causing, our global production of it is ramping up hugely. At present, we produce around 381 million tonnes of plastic per year, half of which is single-use plastic. Of those 381 million tonnes, just 9% of items are made from recycled plastic.

And it’s getting worse. Our rate of plastic production is set to double by 2034. Already, 88% of the ocean’s surface is polluted by plastic waste and our production level is on track to double. That means double the amount of plastic available to end up polluting our waterways.

Recycling isn’t enough

There are many, many reasons why recycling our plastic is no longer enough. Instead, we need to reduce our use of plastic in the first place.

Not all plastic that we put into our recycling bins ends up being recycled. The majority of it (55%, from the UK) heads overseas. Some is reused. Some is dumped in huge, unregulated waste facilities and burned to dispose of it, impacting on local health (both human and animal) and the atmosphere.

We are polluting our water and our air with plastic to a degree that has become unsustainable. Every third fish that’s caught for human consumption now contains plastic. This situation simply cannot carry on.

What do we need to do?

First and foremost, we need to reduce the amount of plastic that we consume. There are two elements to this – individual action and corporate action. Families can play a role by choosing non-plastic items when shopping for groceries, household products, clothes, toys and more.

But we major manufacturers and retailers to step up too. Individuals can encourage them to do so, as we’ve seen in recent years in the UK. Greta Thunberg has inspired a generation of children (and many adults) to stand up for the planet. In the UK, we’ve seen similar examples of young people taking action. Sisters Ella and Caitlin began a petition in 2018 asking Burger King and McDonalds to stop giving out plastic toys wrapped in yet more plastic in their happy meals. Both companies have now ceased doing so, with books, cardboard toys and soft toys replacing the former plastic ones. Burger King led the way and McDonalds, feeling the pressure, hastily followed suit.

The publishing industry, with its plastic-wrapped magazines full of plastic toys that get played with for a few minutes then discarded, is next in the line for attention from the UK’s eco-conscious children.

It may feel at times like the scale of global plastic production, and the resulting pollution, is a problem that is simply too big to tackle. But if children like Greta, Ella and Caitlin are able to show us the way, it’s something that we can all certainly play a part in.

It’s time to stand up and be counted

What could you do to make a difference today? Change requires all of us, so don’t put it off. Find one item in your home today that you can replace with a non-plastic equivalent and make the change. Fire off one email to a company you buy from regularly, asking them to reduce the amount of plastic that they use. Then do it again the next day, and the next. It will take five minutes, but your action could just change the world.