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A zero-waste world – What to do with all this plastic?

This article was first published in the ISWA YPG website.

Working for a recycling company, Blue Planet 2 saw me called into clients’ offices - giving advice on what they should do with their plastics, talking in-depth about recycling, and dispelling myths around supposedly better alternatives. These discussions led me to some really interesting conversations and thoughts that I’d like to share with you.

The simple truth is that going plastic free isn’t an option yet. Like the switch from petrol to diesel, we’d be creating problems elsewhere that didn’t exist before.

It may not be universally popular, but I see plastic as an incredible resource, as a lifeblood for our economy. Plastic is vital in hospitals, delivers electricity to our homes, transports us from A to B, and dramatically extends the shelf life of our food, preventing millions of tonnes of waste.

Its flexible nature is why it surrounds us.

Over the past months, under the marine pollution spotlight and the Chinese import bans on contaminated plastics, I’ve been advocating that plastic itself isn’t the bad guy. It’s how we dispose of it that has led to trouble. The UK sits in a fortunate position – we have the infrastructure to recycle plastics. Countries in the developing world don’t have this infrastructure, plastics are not collected because there’s nowhere to recycle them, and so plastics leak out into the environment.

Nonetheless, the UK model is far from perfect. Over the years, we’ve seen an over reliance on poor quality materials being exported to China. We have a litter problem that costs taxpayers almost £800 million a year and we capture a mere third of the plastics we throwaway (only 9% of which is recycled domestically).

If we’re not quick, we’ll of missed a great opportunity to change this situation for the better.

Undoubtedly, prevention and reduction of waste should be our priority. We live in a throwaway culture that exists at odds with our environment. There are single use items we can live without, take plastic stirrers and coffee cups for example. I see more reusable cups in my clients offices, and it would be great to see more refill schemes for products too.

Designing out waste and behavioural change is key.

When peering into my clients’ bins, my most common frustration is seeing packaging made up of composite materials, and materials consistently discarded into the wrong bin because of a lack of clarity in communicating the recycling message. By introducing extended producer responsibility legislation, we would be able to drive innovative design by putting the environmental cost onto those producing the material, instead of those collecting it. This, in tandem with source separated collections, investment, and perhaps a well-designed deposit return scheme, would promote value in the resources we use.

Looking at images of the vast marine garbage patches, fills me with a tremendous sense of guilt. Market forces have failed, and we need to turn this plastic tap off.

Plastic waste has captured the public’s attention, and we are in dire need of an ambitious government strategy to ensure we do the best thing for the environment. The end game could lead to eliminating plastics, but we’re a long way from that just yet. Exciting materials are on the horizon, and countries around the world can help provide us with precedents. In the meantime, the message I share with my clients and you, is that by using and recycling plastics, we will ensure that this material is kept out of the environment, contributing towards the circular economy, and ultimately valued.

This blog has been submitted to the 2018 ISWA YPG Blog-writing Competition. The Young Professionals Group, supported by the Chartered Institution of Waste Management and the International Association of Solid Waste, is dedicated to (and coordinated by) young professionals in order to encourage them to be proactive and support them in building their careers in the waste industry.

#YPGblog2018 #WHATHAPPENSTOMYWASTE?

The sponsors of this year’s competitions are Veolia and Biffa


Rebecca Maskrey

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