• Writer's picture
    Indigo Environmental Ltd

Plastic pollution – exploring how to achieve a truly circular economy

Plastic waste has been a topic that has dominated both the national and sector-specific news in recent months and years – whether that be detailing brands’ new sustainability commitments or unearthing the illegal dumping of this material overseas.

Our director of recycling, Paul Rendle-Barnes, recently shared his thoughts with Skip Hire Magazine on the role human intervention plays within the wider plastic pollution crisis, and why onshoring our plastic waste is a key enabler when it comes to achieving a more circular – and less linear – economy.

If you missed the original article on page 28, you can catch up below: If you missed the original article on page 28, you can catch up below:

The waste and recycling sector has long been under scrutiny by the media – with the stories that make the headlines often painting the industry in an unfavourable light.

It’s a classic case of ‘one bad apple spoils the whole barrel’, but the truth is that there are many organisations that are employing a sustainability-first mindset, striving to achieve a more closed-loop society.

For example, only recently has it been announced that Kingsmill will be debuting bread bags made from post-consumer waste and The Body Shop has also launched its Return, Recycle and Repeat’ scheme. There are numerous blue-chip companies that have been developing and deploying programmes which not only promote greater resource sustainability, but consider the role that design, reuse, and recycling plays in the lifecycle of their products.

Working towards a more sustainable, less throwaway, society is firmly on the UK government’s agenda too. It has recently published its plans to ramp up the ‘war on plastic waste’ – stopping the supply of a range of single-use plastics, encompassing plates, cutlery, and polystyrene cups. Of course, the goal is that this restriction on single-use items will encourage more businesses to invest in more sustainable alternatives, not only in the short term, but well into the future.

The Plastic Packaging Tax – coming into force in April 2022 – is also another welcomed move by the country’s authorities to improve recycling. With this meaning that plastic packaging manufactured in, or imported into, the UK that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic, will be taxed.

What role does human intervention play?

Human beings should be a key focus when evaluating and criticising the plastic waste crisis we often read about or see on the news though.

Plastics themselves cannot – and should not – be blamed for polluting our oceans and being landfilled. After all, the material has served the purpose for which it was manufactured – whether that was to extend the shelf-life of food, make liquids easier to transport or, protect society from viral transmissions.

Yet all too often the consumption – and disposal – of plastic is exploited. This is where the finger of blame must be pointed – at least in part – to humans, and the habits and behaviours that considerably reduce the potential lifespan of this cost-effective material.

While awareness is the first step in helping to both combat and improve plastic pollution, a multi-faceted approach needs to be taken to achieve true success.

Firstly, plastics should be designed with recyclability and disassembly in mind – as well as the phasing out of polymers that aren’t recoverable – at the very start of the process. In addition, implementing deposit returns schemes on packaging and ensuring businesses bear the end-to-end costs involved in recovery, are both measures which have a pivotal part to play.

Furthermore, being able to recreate virgin ‘R’ recovered grade polymers from waste plastics also assists in making a less ‘throwaway’ and more resourceful culture and mindset possible nationally.

But while the government continues to create policies which champion recycling and sustainable waste management, more steps need to be taken. Recovery targets need to be stuck to – not pushed back or forgotten about – recycling should be integrated into the law, tax breaks should be offered for those companies that are taking action, and financial help should be provided to support the development and adoption of innovative technologies in this arena.

Onshoring our waste is the way forward

It is no secret that plastic usage and demand is continuing to increase across the globe, and experts have estimated that if this continues, the worldwide plastic waste volume would grow to 460 million tonnes per year by 2030.

In fact, in the UK alone, it is estimated that five million tonnes of plastic are used annually – of which almost half is attributed to packaging.

The truth is that more needs to be done. And harnessing the resource potential of this commodity – within its country of origin – is a key factor in helping to not only reduce, but ultimately cease, the amount of material the UK exports overseas, embracing local plastic recycling facilities in the process.

The result would not only facilitate investment in the country’s waste infrastructure but improve overall self-sufficiency – with less reliance upon export – and it would also help society to stop viewing ‘waste’ as a negative, and instead see it as a resource and something of value.

Idiomatically, they say that ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’, but once everyone is aware of the bigger picture regarding their plastic packaging, this can quickly change to be everyone’s treasure. And this is where the country should be aspiring to get to.

When we ship material abroad, we are essentially waving goodbye to a valuable commodity. Whether it could be recycled and reprocessed into another product or even converted into an alternative fuel for energy recovery, onshoring this material could really help to improve the UK’s sustainability and decrease our carbon footprint and overall pollution levels.

Ultimately, if we, as a nation, want to implement a model that has the circular economy and innovation at its heart, carefully considering every stage of a product’s journey is vital, as is assuming responsibility to ensure recyclable material is indeed recycled. And given that our planet’s future health depends on the industry, and society, making the right choices, why not start making them now?