Getting to GRIPS with sustainable plastic

1 March 2021

Marine Biologist Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, gives us a preview of his talk at the Global Research Innovation in Plastics Sustainability (GRIPS) virtual conference, 16 – 18 March 2021…

Being a marine biologist working on plastic pollution, people often expect me to say we can live without plastic. But, in my view it is unquestionable – plastics, designed and managed responsibly, do have the potential to reduce our human footprint on the planet.

There is still a problem to be solved, though. On a daily basis, millions of tonnes of plastic are being incinerated, winding up in landfill or become litter in the natural environment. There is now wide-scale evidence plastic litter is harmful – to wildlife, to the economy and to human wellbeing. So, can we have the benefits without these largely unintended, negative consequences? I believe so.

There are many other human behaviours that have huge environmental price tags. For example, you can’t, at least at the moment, take a long-haul flight without the enormous carbon cost. But we can use polymers responsibly, without the need for end-of-life plastics to accumulate as litter.

Back in the 1950s, Time Life reported on the future of family living, saying that the people of the future’s lives will be so vastly improved by “disposable living”. Just think, it said, you won’t have to do the washing-up ever again if you use disposable plastic plates! OK, a few details were off, but this cultural prediction turned out to be largely spot on, and we very much do live in a disposable world.

But the article was published at a time when the world was producing around 5 million tonnes of plastic a year. Around 70 years later, the cultural / business model is more or less exactly as predicted, but we’re now producing 350 million tonnes of plastic a year, and 40% of it is single-use.

Needless to say, the sacrifice that we need to make to right the situation is not plastic as a whole, but our dependence on disposable living. The good news is, this really need not be much of a sacrifice at all.

Single-use plastic brings short-lived benefit to society, but its cost in terms of end-of-life waste is now monumental and very long-lived. As a consequence, some consumers are crying out for a plastic-free aisle at the supermarket.

We have known the answers for some time, and they are essentially still Reduce, Re-use and Recycle (with a few more recent Rs for good measure too). So why hasn’t a shift happened in the last 70 years? Why are we really only just starting to recognise the problem?

To some extent it is clear industry has had its head in the sand, has turned a blind eye. We have been aware there would be an environmental cost of disposable plastics, but there has been no external pressure for manufacturers to address it, or even consciously acknowledge it.

Most consumers weren’t aware until the tragedy hit the news, so they didn’t demand smarter products. Industry carried on with the same linear business model of non-renewable carbon converted to short-lived application and then to persistent waste - the linear economy.

Going forward, that excuse isn’t going to cut it. Cosmetic microbeads were in use for 50 years before the legislation even started to put a stop to them. All that plastic is still out there, and consumers certainly aren’t to blame just for not knowing.

In my view, this is an environmental challenge we can solve. But that can only be done by working together with action from industry, policy and wider society. We all have a role to play here.

The solutions are centred around designing plastics for a circular economy that is less dependent on non-renewable carbon and that generates less waste, but that retains the benefits that plastics can bring.

To hear more from Professor Richard Thompson, and 150 other expert speakers from around the world who are looking at better ways to deal with plastics, book your place at GRIPS 2021:

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