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With World Environment Day this year focusing on plastic pollution and the shocking images from Blue Planet II still haunting us, it’s no wonder that all of our biggest demons seem to be polymeric right now. Even the BBC’s kids writing competition, 500 words, ranked ‘plastic’ as the most common word used in the stories.

But can we be a little more constructive than just demonising plastic as an ‘Evil Material’. I, for one, am very grateful for its existence. It is SO useful and, for the most part, makes my life a lot easier and, dare I say, happier.

So, while I sit back and assuage my guilt because I drink black coffee and therefore never even consider using single use plastic stirrers, I’m thinking about some alternative solutions.

So, lets clarify the problem – it is not the existence of plastic – it’s plastic polluting our environment. In particular, it’s plastic in our oceans. So how does it get there – is it all to do with callous people throwing their chip forks into the sea after they’ve finished their fish and chips on Southend Pier?

It turns out that the vast majority of plastic going into the sea is from waste mismanagement. Over 60% of the plastic going into the ocean is coming from just 5 countries – China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam [1]. So, shouldn’t the UN just gang up on them and say – ‘Stop dumping plastic into the sea – Or else!’

95% of plastic waste in the sea is coming from just 10 rivers

Well, it turns out it’s not deliberate dumping at sea. Research from The Helmholtz Centre for environmental research have found that 95% of plastic waste is coming from just 10 rivers [2], [3]. So, the big problem is actually land-based plastic waste accumulating in rivers and then making its way to the sea.

Hang on! It can’t only be plastic making its way into these rivers? Plastic floats (especially empty bottles) so it will flow along with the river – but there must be lots of glass, paper, metal and all sorts of other waste pouring into these rives too? I’m guessing that these 10 rivers are probably not going to be my top 10 choices for a swim or a drink as a result. This must lead to those waterways being horrendously polluted.

From the work that I do, I know that big business is investing huge amounts of money into the plastic pollution problem. Companies are trying desperately to show that they’re trying to be responsible about the use of plastic – and even that they’re trying to eliminate it from their products.

A targeted solution

Maybe a better use of all of that money would be to look at just 10 rivers and give the people who live along them better waste and sanitation?

10 years ago, the UN had an initiative for proper sanitation, highlighting the fact that there were over a billion people without access to a proper toilet [4]. Maybe a new initiative for better waste handling would be a more constructive way of dealing with the problem.  For the poorer countries with this problem – let’s look at how international aid could help. For the wealthier countries, surely this is an area where international pressure could make a useful difference.  Indeed – let’s even offer to help the richer countries.

Recognising the value of waste

I guess the final problem is that waste is seen as worthless. This is strange in a world where crude oil is seen as one of our most valuable resources. Our rubbish bins are goldmines of already highly refined natural resources – metals that have been reduced from their ores, plastics that are highly purified forms of hydrocarbons and organic waste that is massively nutrient rich. The sooner we recognise how valuable our waste is, the quicker we’ll be inspired to solve our waste problems.

Steve Thomas
Senior Consultant

Steve is a senior consultant in the Applied Science Group and works on integrating chemistry and materials science into product development and systems engineering.