Cleaning up the oceans is not a solution to the plastic problem

Polluted watersThis blog was first posted on EurActiv.

Plastics have brought huge benefits to our society. But with those benefits come environmental problems. Too often, plastic ends up as waste, as marine litter polluting the oceans, or as litter on our beaches.

Lightweight, durable, and low cost plastics have transformed the products we make and consume, becoming ubiquitous through their convenience and adaptability.

The plastic problem
A recent briefing paper by IEEP sets out the damage that plastics can cause to our ocean environment, with complementary product briefs outlining the damage from microbeads, polystyrene and single use plastics respectively. Up to 12.5 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans as marine litter every year, creating huge environmental, social and economic costs. And it’s not only the visible plastic causing damage: a new IUCN report shows that up to 30 per cent of plastic pollution in the seas is caused by microplastic particles, coming from products like personal care cosmetics, synthetic textiles and car tyres.

These are problems that need to be urgently solved if we are to move towards a more circular economy. The UN has just announced its own ‘Clean Seas’ campaign to tackle the plastics problem. In Europe, the European Commission has promised action to make plastics part of the circular economy. The EU’s plastics strategy is critical to addressing this, and the commission is looking for ideas to include in its plan, which will be published by the end of the year.

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We need to stop plastics entering our oceans
So, do we need to clean up our beachesremove plastic from the sea and fish it out of the oceans using booms, filters or gyres? As awareness of the problem has grown, so has the number of technological solutions being offered, all of which seek to free us of the need to change our habits. Policy makers are attracted to these answers, since they promise low cost, pain free absolution. A mea culpa to Mother Nature. But even the best clean up job cannot solve this crisis, not least because 70 per cent of plastic waste sinks to the sea floor, so we cannot hope to simply sweep it up from the surface.

The oceans can tell us what’s wrong, but the solutions need to start somewhere else, so that we stop plastics entering the marine environment in the first place. We need to radically change the way we design plastics, not the way we dispose of them.

Better design is the key
Whilst plastics are important materials, we need to stop designing products that are both materially inefficient and harmful to the environment.

For some products this means replacing plastic with less harmful alternatives. Microbeads are one example. National policy makers are slowly starting to take measures to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and the commission is likely to bring forward proposals to regulate their use across Europe. But as IEEP’s microbead briefing points out, they are present not only in cosmetics, but also in detergents and products like sun screen.

Other examples of bad design also need to be tackled. Single use plastics, such as plastic cutlery, plastic sticks used for cotton buds, polystyrene packaging and plastic cigarette filters are all designed to be thrown away and should be replaced with reusable or biodegradable alternatives.

Where plastics have to be used, then design improvements can make a difference. Increasing the quality of plastic polymers can make them more recyclable, increase their value and make it more likely that such products can be reused. Adding tethers to plastic bottle caps can avoid them being lost in the oceans. Ecodesign regulations could encourage smarter design so that more of the value of plastic can be retained rather than being lost as waste.

In some cases, we can also look to technology innovation to provide design solutions. Bioplastics could be useful in some situations, such as for food packaging. But as Green Alliance’s recent report on novel materials points out, more research is needed to ensure that we take into account the carbon and land use impacts of bioplastic feedstocks, and that bioplastic can actually achieve its optimistic promises of biodegradability in the real world.

Of course, we also need to look at how we dispose of plastic. But that doesn’t mean focusing on fishing it out of the sea. We can increase the recycling of plastics through bottle deposit schemes to stop bottles turning into beach litter. Microbeads are flushed into the oceans every time we launder synthetic clothing, so we could look at improving the use of filters to prevent this.

We need a range of measures to tackle this problem. Let’s hope that the commission sees the big picture, and has the courage to encourage us to change how we use plastics, not just to clean up the consequences.

Green Alliance is part of the Alliance for Circular Economy Solutions (ACES), a partnership of businesses and think tanks committed to ambitious circular economy policy in Europe.

Download Green Alliance’s infographic.

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