Action at the source
In view of the scale of the problem, urgent action is needed to reduce the dissemination of plastic in the natural environment. The context varies greatly from one country to another meaning that efforts need to encompass a kaleidoscope of solutions. The priority is to take action at the source of the problem in order to prevent new waste being found at sea. To reach this goal, the keywords are the three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – and Alert.
our plastic production and consumption. Not using plastic is still the best way to prevent plastic pollution. At industrial level, we need to analyse the environmental impacts a product could have from its inception in order to choose the most appropriate alternative materials with the least impact (see the alternatives). Civil society also has a role to play by changing its consumption patterns and by refusing unnecessary plastics.
products and banning single-use plastics to avoid plastic becoming waste is another clean solution for our environment! Here again, industry has a great responsibility to find solutions to reduce over packaging and develop alternatives to single-use items. For its part, civil society players need to reassess, as of now, their lifestyles in order to avoid using disposable plastics and to reuse everyday items as much as possible.
more and better. Improving recycling techniques is essential to enable 1. as many categories of plastic as possible to be recovered, 2. toxic additives that make up used plastics to be eliminated more efficiently and 3. the quality of the recycled plastic obtained to be improved in order to be able to recycle it again. At the same time, waste sorting and collection must be optimised.
Alert to the dangers of plastic for our environment. Raising public awareness and disseminating information is a long-term strategy which, if it works, guarantees results as far as applying the three R’s is concerned. An informed consumer is the most waste-efficient consumer!
To date, no universal material exists that can compensate for plastic; therefore, we need to deal with the issue on a case-by-case basis. For example, metal can replace the plastic of a bottle but cannot be used as a substitute for the plastic of a bag, which needs to be replaced by cotton.
Bearing in mind the 3 main challenges arising from plastic (use of a finite source, toxicity of the constituent additives and its low degradability in the environment), a proper balance needs to be found between the environmental impact of a product and the desired properties. Other than substitution by other materials, scientists are working on the biodegradability of plastics and changing the source of the raw material used to produce them. Bioplastics and biodegradable plastics are often presented as a solution. What are these really?
The term « Bioplastic » (or bio sourced) means that part of the raw material used to manufacture the plastic is of organic origin. Although it reduces the use of a finite resource, using biomass to make plastic does not resolve all the problems. Bioplastic does not mean biodegradable!
« Biodegradable » means that a product can be degraded by micro-organisms in appropriate conditions; this property is independent of the product source. Biodegradable does not therefore guarantee that a product will decompose in the natural environment, nor that it will decompose within a reasonable time frame. Consequently, even biodegradable products can be harmful to our environment!
River and ocean clean ups
By collecting macro waste from rivers, lakes and reservoirs we can recover plastic before it breaks down into micro plastic. Improved plastic collection mechanisms in these areas therefore reduce the amount of plastic ending up in the sea and hence limit its impact.
An increasing number of projects involving the collection of floating waste from the ocean are being proposed. Although this will reduce the amount of plastic that can be seen by humans, in the long term, this solution will not solve the problem. Floating plastic which can be retrieved represents a mere 1% of the estimated amount of plastic in the ocean. The amount of plastic collected is therefore very low compared to the amount of plastic already in the ocean and cannot compete with the 8 million tonnes that enter the ocean every year. However, these highly-publicised efforts have the merit of attracting public attention. It is nonetheless important to understand that to deal with the problem, many changes are necessary in regard to our lifestyles and the way we manage waste.