Marine biologist Richard Thompson has shown how plastic contaminates the environment, but he doesn’t believe the material is necessarily bad. Rather he is calling for a more responsible approach to the way we design, use and dispose of plastic items.
I once came across a 1950s article in Time magazine describing the convenience that plastic offered a family in everyday life. At that time the world produced a mere five million tonnes of plastic annually and the price nature had to pay for this convenience was relatively small.
Today we produce approaching 400 million tonnes of plastic each year, 40 percent of which is used for packaging. It’s a short-lived convenience, and all too quickly it ends up in landfill or, worse, in the environment where it is directly harmful and can break down into microplastics. Consumers, industry, science and governments have recognized that we can no longer continue this way, and that more should have been done to avoid this problem. The calls for a plastic-free society are becoming louder.
Professor Dr Richard Thompson OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) is Director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth in England. For 20 years he has been involved in researching the impact of plastics on ocean environments and coined the term microplastics’.
On the other hand, plastic has tremendous potential to help people. It’s not an environmental foe. It can even help to reduce our planet’s human footprint. In the end, it is all about using plastic in a responsible and efficient way. It should not end up as waste in the first place. So, while we need to reduce plastic consumption, for the benefits it brings we need to design for a more circular economy via recycling.
Thinking about the consequences
Although this requires a new way of thinking at different levels, a lot of people are not quite ready. When I ask designers if they have given any thought to what will happen with their product after it is used, the answer from many is, “No, that was not in my brief.” Then there are the pointless applications of plastic, such as the microplastics found in cosmetics. The relevant patents are some 50 years old. Didn’t anyone in the companies using microbeads ask what happens to these particles?
We cannot solve the waste problem solely with regulations, bans and taxes on products. Yes, they are part of the picture for unnecessary items like single-use shopping bags. We know, however, that people tend to circumvent regulations. The better approach is to convince them to change their behavior! What is urgently needed is closer cooperation between various fields of research, governments, consumers and industry. Only by working together can we answer questions such as, What are the current uses of plastic that should be avoided? Where does it make sense to require that a product contains a specific amount of recyclable materials? Where is plastic still the best material, and what can be done to make plastics
The answers lie in finding tailored solutions for each application. There is
growing awareness of this issue and a real opportunity to harness that interest and focus it on more responsible design, use and disposal. Even in the short time since we proved the existence of microplastics in 2004, and the extent to which they pollute the environment, worldwide plastic production has tripled. Now is the time to finally take action – and fast!