Our relationship with plastic needs rethinking. Plastics are versatile materials, but the way we use them is incredibly wasteful. We take oil and gas from the earth to make plastic products that are often designed to be used only once, and then thrown away in the current linear take-make-waste economic model. Year on year, millions of tonnes of plastic end up in landfills, are burned, or leaked into the environment. A staggering 8 million tonnes leaks into the ocean every year, and that number is rising. If we do not rethink its use, there might be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight by 2050.
But it is possible to rethink the way we design, use, and reuse plastics to create a circular economy for plastic. The use of plastics has increased twenty-fold in the past 50 years. While the plastic material has many benefits, we now know there are harmful negative consequences if it becomes waste or pollution. We need a new vision for a circular economy for plastic, in which plastic never becomes waste or pollution. It is not only about beach clean-ups to clean up the waste already in our environment, on their own they are far from enough. Even if we manage to clean up the current plastic in the environment, more plastic leaks into it every day, and plastic waste enters the world’s oceans.
It is also not about banning plastic and replacing it with other materials, such as glass, paper or aluminium. Even though banning plastics can be a solution, replacing it with other materials can lead to significant negative, unintended consequences such as increased carbon emissions, water use, and food waste. Hence, we must take a holistic approach, looking at the whole system in which a plastic material is used, from sourcing and production to use and after use. Redesigning the entire plastics system is the solution: rethinking the way we make, use, and reuse plastics and redesigning the system in which plastic material is used to fit within a reuse, recycling, or composting system.