The plastic waste problem
Much has been said about the word’s plastic problem, but let’s not forget that plastic has been an enabler of economic growth, making many different commodities more affordable. Offering lower costs and more choice, its production has contributed to the prosperity of many people.
Indeed, it is such a useful material with many beneficial properties – product protection, light weight and low cost – that it has meant that we have become addicted to plastic. An addiction which is creating environmental damage because we haven’t managed its end of life effectively.
More than 350 million tons of polymers are made every 12 months, with this growing 5% per annum. Half of the plastic we make is for single-use products which are used for a very short time before being binned, creating waste which lasts for decades and centuries. Just an estimated 14% of waste plastic goes to recycling facilities and statistics suggest there will be 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste discarded on land and in bodies of water by 2040.
The United Nations estimates that anywhere between 60% and 90% of the rubbish found littering the shorelines, floating on the surface, and reaching the seabed is plastic, invading food chains and causing us harm. Data from Statista suggests that around 70,000 microplastics are consumed by an average person each year, the equivalent to approximately 100 bits of microplastic in just a single meal.
The good news is that there is now a global movement which recognises that it is time to take action and address one of the most pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century to deal with the plastic waste problem. At least 57 countries have joined the UN Environment Clean Seas campaign since 2017 and pledged to cut down their plastic footprint sooner rather than later. Some countries have banned single-use plastics, while others have taken the initiative to build more recycling plants.
There will always be a place for forms of plastic in modern consumer society. But there’s a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed if we really want to protect our planet through sustainable behaviours and materials. Most of our global economy is currently designed for linearity—take, make, waste—rather than circularity, but we now have the opportunity to change.
Overcoming the barriers to the circular economy
To create a truly circular economy, the world must overcome a number of different barriers. Consumers have become used to convenience and this means that we now use 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago. The desire for convenience and functionality has also driven the increasing complexity of materials which has made plastic waste even more confusing for consumers to deal with it when it needs to be disposed of, and even harder in practical terms to recycle.
However, we know that there is an appetite for change. Our own research shows that the majority (67%) of people want to buy more products that do not use single-use plastic packaging. Furthermore, over half (54%) said that they will try and stop buying products which use single-use plastic packaging completely over the next three years. Significantly, more than half (52%) are prepared to pay more for environmentally friendly packaging. This is extremely good news for the planet.
So, if we have the end-user on side, we also need to tackle the business and regulatory environment which doesn’t always support sustainable behaviour among companies and consumers. This is a common problem in the food and beverage sector. For example, best before and expiry date labels are often required by law to protect the consumer, but may not account for differences in how food is stored such as pantry versus refrigeration, encouraging confused consumers to throw away perfectly good food and creating even more packaging waste.
The world’s recycling infrastructure also remains woefully inadequate. Nearly one-third of plastics are not collected by a waste management system and end up as litter on land, and in rivers and oceans. This problem is especially severe in developing countries that lack a strong waste management infrastructure.
Although recycling technology exists, it needs much, much more investment Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value applications, such as polyester carpet fibre; only 2 percent are recycled into products of the same or similar quality. We need more advanced recycling technology that can maintain quality and purity so that product manufacturers are willing to use recycled plastics. When this is deployed at a large scale, we can start recapturing the economic value of plastics, incentivising recovery and recycling.
Finally, we also need to urgently rethink our business models to focus on rental, reuse, recycle and resale – rather than throw away. Products need to be designed for circularity and better end of life outcomes, allowing for recycling in standardised processes.
Collaboration is key
Not only is solving the plastic problem a huge task, it is complex, involving many different actors, from governments and regulators, to product designers and retailers, industry bodies and waste management companies, through to the end consumer. Collaboration across the supply chain is the key to unlocking the circular economy. We need to pool our technical expertise and resources to bring together ideas and thinking which will enable us to produce new materials which will genuinely help solve the world’s current – and potentially catastrophic – plastic waste problem if we don’t.
It is new partnerships that will help us find sustainable solutions to replace single-use plastics, reducing landfill and ocean waste and stopping microplastics being made at source. But, this all needs to be achieved without comprising the necessary functionality and protection of food, drink and other products that we purchase. We all have a part to play. Material manufacturers need to collaborate to understand how their materials can work together to maintain functionality, whilst simplifying constructions and enabling the reuse of materials. Packaging designers and material manufacturers need to work together so that packaging is designed to be separated for easier and more economic recycling, without simply relying on consumer action.
When it comes to improving the recycling infrastructure and recycling rates, recyclers and material manufacturers need to share details on new materials, how they can be recycled, the economics to make it viable and how they can be labelled and identified against traditional, non-recyclable packaging such as coated paper.
Waste management companies, retailers and trade bodies also need to place much greater focus on developing closed loop systems to make transportation easier and cheaper, in turn making recycling economically viable. Councils and recyclers need to consider if weight-driven targets are appropriate and develop homogenous alternatives that encourage recycling.
Collaboration in action
An example of how effective it is to pool resources and expertise is our own relationship with international packaging company, DS Smith. We have been working together to find a solution to the issue of non-recyclable paper packaging, the use of which has increased as the industry has moved to replace conventional, hard to recycle and single use plastics. This has resulted in a wide va¬riety of fibre-based packaging formats combined with alternative functional barriers being introduced into the recovered paper recycling streams. However, the materials currently being used to give paper the packaging functionality required for products such as food, drink and household goods, are not easily recyclable and mean that the paperboard is rejected because paper mills cannot process the paper and plastic combinations. Instead, they are incinerated or go to landfill.
At Aquapak, we have successfully developed and commercialised HydropolTM, a high-performance polymer that enables product design to provide its much-needed functionality whilst increasing recycling and reducing plastic pollution. When extrusion coated or laminated onto paper, HydropolTM adds strength and barriers to oxygen, oil and grease. As well as being biodegradable and compostable, it is non-toxic to the environment and marine-safe, so it still has a safe end-of-life if it is not disposed of as intended. It is already being used in products such as reusable, heat sealable paper mailing bags for ecommerce.
DS Smith and Aquapak jointly commissioned a study which showed that innovative, bio-digestible barrier coatings increase paper recycling rates and fibre yield, without compromising functionality, providing a viable new packaging alternative which is ready and available for use.
DS Smith and Aquapak jointly commissioned a study which showed that innovative, bio-digestible barrier coatings increase paper recycling rates and fibre yield, without compromising functionality, providing a viable new packaging alternative which is ready and available for use. This independent research, published in PITA, ‘’Considerations for process, product and environmental fate testing of soluble bio-digestible barriers for paper and board packaging’, shows that new barrier technologies such as Hydropol provide an alternative to conventional plastic coatings used in paper packaging by promoting improved paper fibre separation and removing plastic waste from the recycling process, dramatically reducing the negative impact of paper packaging on the environment.
The tests used in the study show that Hydropol is compatible with the processes used by high volume recycling mills and enables high fibre recovery, whilst reducing insoluble single-use plastics which are ejected and sent to landfill or waste to energy. Hydropol is also now proven to give real improvement on current regulations which allow the ‘recyclable’ label to be used if there is up to 15% unrecyclable material in the product, regardless of it actual eligibility to be recycled.
Rising to the challenge
The good news is that investment is being made in new materials that provide the benefits of plastic and help existing materials in the economy by identifying new materials that provide circularity and multiple end of life options. We all need to recognise there is a new way of working and harness the power of collaboration to dramatically accelerate the pace of change to transition to the circular economy.