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Plastics and the circular economy

Plastics doesn't have a good reputation and has been consistently hammered as being bad by many agencies and NGOs. They can have serious downsides on the environment and health due to several. However, our everyday life today would be inconceivable without plastic as it is an important and ubiquitous material in our economy and daily lives. Is it too easy a thing to condemn the material?

The criticism on plastics and the general environmental damage associated with it date back to the 1970s. In this decade, the first study was published that investigated the influence of plastic on marine life. Since then, it seems, the criticism has not ceased. In many cases, this criticism looks justified with the pictures of beaches full of garbage, floating islands of trash in the sea and animals dying in the midst of plastic bags and packaging.

In the recent years we have seen another problem arising: Microplastics. These very small plastics particles are created when larger plastic parts fall apart. Moreover, microbeeds made of plastic are often part of cosmetics and cleaning products. Last but not least, our everyday life also produces microplastics. Washing fleece sweaters, for examples, leaves the smallest particles in the water. These microplastics are reported to have entered food chain and has the potential to create several problems.

According to a study by the Global Marine and Polar Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN), these tiny particles account for 15 to 31 percent of all plastic that is released into the ocean every year. Some 35 percent of these particles come from clothing and 28 percent from tyre wear.

According to a report by Eunomia, 12.2 million tons of plastic migrate into the oceans per year. Nine million tons come from the land and coasts. Beaches account for only five percent of this pollution. A study published last November in Environmental Science & Technology shows that ten rivers are primarily responsible for the pollution. For this purpose, a total of 57 rivers around the world were examined. The researchers behind the study were able to show that between 0.47 and 2.75 million tons of plastic find their ways across rivers into the oceans every year. Ten rivers are responsible for about 93 percent of these: Yangtze, Indus, Yellow, Hai, Nile, Ganges, Pearl, Amur, Niger and Mekong. Eight of these rivers are in Asia, two in Africa. The Yangtze, a 6,380-km-long river in China, is by itself said to be responsible for 1.5 million tons of plastic waste being washed into the ocean every year.

What is needed now is the adoption of the Circular Economy concept which consists of an Action Plan that establishes a concrete and ambitious programme of action, with measures covering the whole cycle: from production and consumption to waste management and the market for secondary raw materials.

Better design of plastic products, higher plastic waste recycling rates, more and better quality recyclates will help boosting the market for recycled plastics. It will deliver greater added value for a more competitive, resilient plastics industry. The action plan could include Plastic ban in certain products like several single-use plastic products like cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers etc. Reduce the use of plastic food containers and drinks cups. Make Producers responsible for waste management and clean-up, as well as awareness raising measures; initiate collection targets; create standarised and clear labelling which indicates how waste should be disposed, the negative environmental impact of the product, and the presence of plastics in the products and conduct general awareness-raising measures

Author Details

A.S. Athalye

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