This is our consolidated guide on solutions to plastic problems.
In this guide, we outline:
– Potential solutions to a range of plastic problems across society
– How we might manage plastic into the future as individuals, and as a society
Summary – Solutions To Plastic Problems, & Managing Plastic Into The Future
The Use Of Plastic Has Tradeoffs
There should be an understanding that the use of plastic is like the use of other materials – there’s tradeoffs (i.e. pros and cons) to consider
Although plastic as a material can have range of potential negative effects, plastic is an important material when considering it’s full impact on society.
Plastic as a material has many uses across different industries and sectors of society, and benefits society in a number of ways as a result
The Management Of Plastic
With the above in mind, it might be accurate to say that some plastic problems can’t be completely eliminated, but, they might be able to be managed in a more sustainable or effective way.
The information in the guide below might simply be a starting point for further discussion on potential management options of plastic in the future.
Small vs Large Level Solutions To Plastic Problems
Some solutions to plastic problems are very simple, whilst some solutions might be more complex.
Some solutions might be simple actions that can be implemented by individuals, and some solutions might require a co-ordinated approach on a much larger levels by individuals and consumers, businesses/producers and innovators, waste management collectors and processors, government/policy makers, and other stakeholders and parties.
Therefore, some solutions may be more easily implemented than others.
Some Additional Research & Data Might Be Required For Some Plastic Problems
We may need more comprehensive research and study carried out and made available for some plastic problems before they can be effectively addressed
Another example might be the extent and also the impact of plastic pollution on land
The Difficulty Of Removing Existing Microplastics Across Society
We put together a separate guide specifically on microplastics and nano plastics
Microplastics break off from existing plastic products, and also break down from plastic pollution in the environment.
Micro plastics and nano plastics are found everywhere on land – in soil, sediments, the air, rivers, lakes, drinking water, oceans, and more.
There may not be an effective way to completely remove the presence of micro-plastics and nano plastics already in the environment and in other places
Going Beyond The Environmental Impact Of Plastic
In solving plastic problems, there’s more than the environmental sustainability impact of plastic to consider.
There’s also the human health, wildlife, social, and technological and practical impact to consider.
For example, we outlined the economic impact of plastic here.
Each one of the above aspects contributes to the net impact of plastic.
Structure Of This Guide
The way we have structured the guide below is:
– General Solutions To Plastic Problems
– Solutions To Individual/Specific Plastic Problems
– Solutions To Ocean Based Plastic Problems
– Solutions To Land Based Plastic Problems
– Solutions To The 21 Potential Harmful Effects Of Plastic
Each ‘solutions’ section considers how to manage different aspects of different plastic problems.
General Solutions To Plastic Problems
Some of the general solutions that may help address or manage general plastic problems might include:
– Eliminating the use of new plastic altogether where it’s not essential
For example, in some instances, a re-usuable water bottle can be used instead of buying a new disposable plastic water bottle.
– Reducing total plastic consumption and production where possible
An example of this is buying products that use far less plastic packaging for the same amount of product.
Alternatively, a variation of this is to reduce the use of some of the more problematic plastics
These plastics may include but aren’t limited to single use, highly disposable and short use plastics (like plastic packaging), and plastics that are littered or that become pollution at higher rates
– Re-using and repurposing plastic, or finding secondary uses for plastic, before sending it to waste
An example of re-using or repurposing plastic is using a plastic shopping bag multiple times instead of discarding it after one or a couple of uses.
A secondary use for plastic might involve using a plastic bag as a bin liner after it’s been used as a shopping bag.
Some plastic items can also be up cycled or down cycled and used in other products, such as turning plastic into plastic fill for another product.
– Recycling plastic waste, or, sending it to the most sustainable waste management option
When plastic has to become waste, in some instances recycling may be the best waste management option.
But, in other instances, incineration or landfill may be a better option for various reasons.
– Find more sustainable ways to manage plastic waste that can’t be recycled anymore
Sometimes this waste ends up in landfill, but, there may be other uses for this plastic instead of sending it to landfill.
– Improve waste management systems and infrastructure
Some countries and regions have higher mismanaged plastic and plastic pollution rates than others.
Ensuring these regions have a basic level of waste management for plastic can address this, and can help address plastic leaking from dumping sites and uncontained landfill sites.
Investment would need to be made at one of or a combination of the following post consumer waste stages – waste disposal, waste collection, waste processing, waste catchment or retrieval in the environment, and either the re-use, recycling, incineration or dumping of waste
Another example for regions with waste incineration technology is improving emissions and pollutant capture technology and devices at incineration and waste to energy plants. This would help reduce emissions and air pollutants.
– Re-designing plastic products and packaging
Redesign plastic packaging and plastic products to use less problem type plastics (such as less packaging), or to be more recyclable, more re-usable, better for repurposing, or compostable
– Developing new plastic chemistries, or changing the makeup of plastics
Such as new bioplastics that aren’t based on non renewable fossil fuel feedstock
Or, changing the additives and fillers that plastic uses
– Using alternate materials to plastic where possible
Such as recyclable metals, or materials like wood or bamboo
It depends on the end use though as to what material might be best to use
Consider where alternatives to plastic for drink bottles and food containers can be safer or more beneficial (especially for drinking water)
Such as using drink and food containers, and other products, that are either metal or glass, or additive free
Use natural products where possible inside homes, such as wooden furniture or natural fibres in clothing, over plastic furniture or synthetic fibre clothing and textiles
– Consider if incentives and penalties can play a role in better managing plastic
This is something we discussed when talking about whether plastic bags, bottles and straws should be banned or not
– Understanding the different lifecycle stages of plastic
Plastic may be better managed when the different lifecycle stages of plastic are understood more clearly
These stages include the production, use, waste, disposal and waste management, and pollution of plastic
Some solutions might be better aimed at creating change at one particular stage, whilst other solutions may aim for change across the entire lifecycle
– Assess each problem individually
Each plastic problem being assessed should be done so on a case by case basis i.e. by plastic type, by plastic item or product, by city or region and so on.
This is because each problem will have different variables and factors to consider that might change the best solution to pursue
To avoid repetition, we have not listed the solutions above throughout the entire guide, but they may be applicable to many of the plastic problems mentioned.
Instead, we’ve tried to focus on more specific and unique solutions to the individual plastic problems listed.
Solutions To Individual Plastic Problems
Some of the potential solutions to individual plastic issues we face in society might be:
Some of these plastics like plastics with high waste rates might contribute to plastic problems more than others
For each type of plastic we might ask how are they causing problems, and for who (humans? wildlife? the air, water and soil in the environment? the economy?)?
What is the exact impact or effect of these plastics?
– Distinguish between plastics that are necessary for critical or important functions, or that provide significant benefits, and more problematic plastics
Plastics that preserve safety and hygiene, or plastics that prevent food waste might be beneficial compared to other plastics
Plastics are actually very beneficial at the transport and pre consumer phase in a lot of ways (plastics are lighter, more affordable, more flexible, more durable, and more eco friendly to produce and use than some alternate materials).
Problematic plastics might include toxic plastics, plastics that have high waste rates, unnecessary or easily substitutable plastics, and more
Plastic packaging may have a much higher waste rate than some construction plastics, so it might be important to understand solutions specifically for addressing plastic packaging over other types of plastic and plastic waste
If a plastic has a longer lifespan, and contributes to making things safer or more economical in society, it might be considered a lower priority to cut the consumption of compared to plastics that don’t
Plastic packaging is one of the specific types of plastic waste that is most prominent
– Specifically focus on reducing plastic consumption in the countries with the highest per capita plastic consumption rates
Some countries consume/use plastic at far higher rates than others
– Specifically focus on reducing plastic pollution in countries with the highest plastic pollution rates
Plastic pollution is a result of mismanaged plastic, which involves littered plastic, and plastic that is inadequately disposed of by leaking from waste management systems, such as open dumping sites and uncontained landfills
So, countries with ineffective waste management systems and high leakage rates may need investment to upgrade these systems
– Make it a priority to work with the organizations and businesses, and industries most responsible for plastic waste
Consider how companies and businesses individually can assess their plastic waste footprint themselves and come up with improvement plans
rubiconglobal.com mentions the DIVERT strategy for businesses and industrial organisations. This strategy involves the steps of Determine, Initiate A Plan, Vocalise, Eliminate, Roll Out and Track. Implementing a plan like this might help businesses and industries better manage waste, and plastic waste.
– Reduce littering
According to some reports, the average littering rate across all countries is 2% of all plastic produced, so, reducing littering is something that all countries can address
Highly disposable, single use plastics like plastic food wrappers, plastic bags, plastic straws etc are often the most littered plastic items too. So, this is something to keep in mind
– Clean up littered and polluted plastic waste
On land, in rivers and freshwater sources, on beaches and coastlines, and in oceans
Sometimes this happens via volunteer clean ups
Sometimes councils do clean ups
And, sometimes there are organisations and initiatives that clean up plastic specifically in rivers and oceans
– Make sure that the right plastics are being targeted to be recycled in each locale, and that effective recycling collection and processing systems and facilities are in place.
There’s many reasons why majority of plastic isn’t being recycled, and why some plastic gets rejected from recycling facilities (plastic is mixed, plastic is contaminated, it’s a non recyclable plastic etc.).
Firstly, there needs to be more clarity on which plastics are feasible, beneficial, and practical to recycle in each local market (not all plastic types and plastic products make sense to recycle).
Secondly, recycling collection services and recycling processing facilities need to be adequate and effective in dealing with plastics that are approved to be recycled.
Some cities and town don’t have recycling facilities at all, and others have facilities that are simply too inefficient or can’t process enough types of plastic products in an effective way
– Make sure that the right plastics are being used for waste to energy, and that the right incineration or plastic burning technology is in place
– Make sure that landfills are receiving the right plastics, and that they have effective landfill liners and leachate management
– Consider how new developments with some types of plastic recycling machines could help with plastic waste management in the future
– Consider how new technology that turns some plastics back into oil could be a good way to recycle these plastics
– Develop individual solutions for each town, city, State/Province and country depending their individual plastic issues and problems, and how they contribute to national and global plastic issues and problems
Solutions To Ocean Based Plastic Problems
Being aware of the main causes of ocean based plastic issues may help in implementing solutions that are most effective for marine environments specifically.
As just one example, one source indicates that we should be focussing on improving effective waste management in low to middle income to better address ocean plastic pollution, rather than worry about trying to reduce the use of plastic straws which only make up a small % of overall plastic waste
Solutions To Land Based Plastic Problems
You can read a guide about land based plastic pollution problems here.
Being aware of the main causes of dry land plastic pollution may help in implementing solutions that are most effective for dry land environments specifically.
For example, filtering water for microplastics might be a good start.
Several reports also indicate that drinking water contaminated with pathogens and bacteria is a bigger public health/safety risk than microplastics in some countries, so, addressing this issue in those countries may be a bigger priority.
Solutions To The 21 Potential Harmful Effects Of Plastic
You can read about the 21 Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic in this guide.
The problems and potential solutions are summarise below:
– BPA in plastic
Firstly, some more definitive data on the risk level of BPA in plastics might be a priority.
Secondly, BPA free plastics may be another way to address BPA in plastics.
But, some sources indicate that ‘BPA Free Products’ that are being offered may be a concern too, as the substitutes for BPA have questions over their safety (livescience.com).
Certification schemes that guarantee safety for BPA, BPS and BPA or BPS free product might help (in a similar way that organic cotton has certification).
[As a solution to BPA concerns -] PP (code 1) and PET (code 5) plastic do not contain BPA and have no known health hazards.
If you are concerned about BPA, a number of brands now make ‘BPA-free’ plastic reusable bottles
Though BPA has been banned in some plastic products — such as baby bottles and sippy cups — its often replaced by a chemical called BPS that may also be toxic, as well as harmful.
Check labels carefully, and look for the number “7” printed in the plastic, as this can be an indicator of BPA content (ogdenclinicblog.com)
… plastics made with BPA will often have a resin code of 7 appearing on the item (canr.msu.edu)
– Phthalates in plastic
Similar solutions that are outlined for BPA above might be applied for phthalates in plastic.
There should also be awareness around the difference between high and low phthalates should also.
Some reports suggest replacing low phthalates with high phthalates, or, to replace phthalates altogether with non-phthalate plasticisers
Being able to better identify products with phthalates in them may also help from a product labelling perspective.
– PVC as a problem plastic type
Some sources indicate PVC as a plastic type (and highly chlorinated PVC in particular) can be a problem (over it’s lifecycle from production to disposal), whilst others sources say it isn’t.
There needs to be more certainty on what types of PVC are a problem, and when/how they are a problem.
Problem PVC types may need certification for safe or eco friendly production, use and disposal.
Using alternate materials to PVC may also be an solution
Also, being able to better identify products with PVC in them can help from a product labelling perspective
– Plastic leaching other chemicals
Additives, stabilizers, fillers and plasticizers can leach from plastics.
Again – there needs to be more definitive studies that provide more clarity and certainty around how and when plastic does this.
Using and disposing of plastics in a way where they are less likely to leach, or, substituting additives that can be more hazardous, might be two potential solutions.
There are many ways humans are ingesting or inhaling micro plastics.
We need to look at each source individually, and address each of them
Additionally, getting more certainty on the impact of microplastics on human health may be a priority too.
– Plastics taking a long time to decompose
The key way to address this would be to isolate plastic to landfills where they can decompose with less impact on the environment, animals and humans.
But, newer plastics like compostable plastics or bioplastics may help too.
– Better plastic recycling
There’s various ways to improve the recycling of plastic, some of which we mentioned above.
Improving waste management systems would be a key solution.
Another way might be new types of plastic like PDK plastic that can be recycled a greater amount of times (plastic currently can only be recycled between one to nine times as an estimate before it can’t be recycled anymore).
Even PDK plastic though might only have limited applications for use – so, it isn’t a complete solution.
– Plastics in landfill
As mentioned above, make sure landfills are adequate to contain and manage plastic waste (with effective liners and leachate management systems).
Make sure landfill sites in low to middle income countries are secure and closed off, to prevent the leaking of plastic into the environment.
– Incinerating plastics
We need to incinerate the right plastics that are feasible to burn for waste to energy.
But also, the incineration technology needs to be somewhat eco friendly.
Burning plastic in a more eco friendly way can be expensive, so, we may also look for ways to bring costs and technology capital costs down.
– Ingestion of plastics by wildlife
Better containment in landfills, and waste management of plastic would help with this.
More plastic staying in landfills and less plastic getting out into rivers and the ocean would mean lower rates of ingestion of plastic by wildlife.
Ingestion of micro plastics would be harder to address.
– Entanglement in plastic by wildlife
Fishing nets and fishing line are big culprits of this, along with plastic items like plastic can holder packaging.
Less littered and inadequately disposed of plastic in the environment would help (via better waste management systems).
But, also, there is marine plastic pollution in addition to land based sources of plastic pollution.
A lot of marine based plastic pollution comes from fishing vessels.
There’s some ideas for reducing the dumping of fishing gear and fishing equipment at maritime-executive.com
– Plastic uses fossil fuels in it’s production
Using alternative materials to plastic is the obvious answer here, or alternate feedstocks like those used in bioplastics.
– Plastic pollution costs money to address
Pretty obvious – reduce plastic waste rates, and the amount of plastic waste getting out into rivers and oceans, and the cost to address plastic pollution will go down.
– Plastic attracting and building up with toxic pollutants
We can help with this issue by reducing the amount of toxic pollutants we use as part of society and in every day life.
Or, we can better manage organic pollutants such as pesticides.
But also, reducing plastic pollution in the environment and restricting plastic to landfill would help with this.
– Plastic and the emission of greenhouse gases
Using less plastic overall is really the only way to address this if majority of GHGs from plastic are coming from the production process.
This, or changing the basic chemistry of plastic to have a lower carbon footprint.
What Other Groups Say About Solutions To Plastic Problems
Additionally, some extra resources which might provide extra answers to plastic problems are:
– The ourworldindata.org resource has information on how individuals, producers and industry, and government and policy makers can address plastic issues on each level
– The weforum.org resource has suggestions on what a new plastic economy might look like in the future
– The plasticsrecycling.org resource has information on designing plastics and plastic packaging in a more effective way for recycling
Consider these statements from triplepundit.com in moving towards a different future with plastic:
… plastics need a “new chemistry”
… Innovation is required in all steps of the plastics value chain — including new materials, product designs, business models and recycling technologies
We don’t want a world without plastics, even it were possible.
The challenge and opportunity of a New Plastics Economy is carving a circular path for plastics, indeed for the entire economy, that aligns itself with natural processes, resources efficiency, and economic sustainability.
theconversation.com mentions this:
Plastic itself may not be bad – it’s what we do with it and how we manage it
Single-use plastic is a complex issue – in some cases it is very useful, in others just the opposite
[Plastic provides us with many benefits in society, so the use of plastic isn’t the whole problem. Instead of eliminating plastic completely, we need to look at how we use plastic.]
[We have to look at better ways to integrate plastic into society …]
Some specific ways to do this might be:
Design plastic with recycling in mind
Developing plastic with more desirable properties
Look at biodegradable plastics that come from sustainable resources
Improving recycling collection, sorting and processing systems to better deal with plastic
Explore use of plastic with a single polymer type