Plastic. It seems that this word is a hot topic in every other article on the internet. From the amount of plastic in the oceans, to innovative technologies trying to re-incorporate it to the value chain, “plastic” has become the centre of attention to policy makers, scientist, producers and consumers; and as you all know, stronger policies are being implemented around the globe to decrease the amount of pollution generated from this non-renewable material. But who is it to blame for the negative impacts caused by it? As a quick background, I studied Chemical Engineering in Mexico, worked for almost 2 years in one of the biggest chemical companies in the world, and now I have a part-time job within sales for a Swedish bio-compounder, so let’s say that I’ve been in contact with the plastic industry.
When it comes to Sweden, Swedes use somewhere around 770 million plastic bags per year from supermarkets alone, according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket, 2017). Sweden. Just Sweden! So is this the problem of consumers when we read those articles of a whales that have couple of kilograms of plastic in their stomachs? As stated before, I work within the plastic industry and I don’t think it is a problem of consumers themselves; why? well, producers of virgin material, which are those profiting from the extraction of oil and production of plastic pellets, haven’t been stepping up their game when it comes to circular economy; this means, that the recycling of materials hasn’t been developed to actually reduce significantly the amount of new material being produce. Why? …here comes my [little] expertise in the subject; its complexity for being re-introduced.
2 weeks ago I traveled to Nüremberg as part of my job to one of the biggest toy fairs. What I experienced is that “sustainable” solutions from either recycled plastics or biocomposites are limited for the consumers to choose from; so why we don’t produce as much recycled end-products as we could imagine? Well, imagine that a baby will lick the toy, that toy should be certified that is non-toxic, now if we add to the equation recycled plastic we need to think about the variables behind where that plastic was recycled from; here is where I introduced our 3rd character, governments. When it comes to recycling plastics, we can all agree that we recycle them in one big container labeled “plastic” (except from PET cause well, that’s a quite well developed industry when compared to the others), don’t we? Well, the chemicals, standards, processes, and mechanical properties of all the plastic products that we consume are not being segmented accordingly to its source. In other words, the plastic bag is not the same plastic as the one from a toy, nor the same from the shampoo bottle in most of the cases. Furthermore, these products had different standards, and were treated with different chemicals. So how can we recycle tomatos with potatos and then mix them with apples so we can grow lemons? I do think, governments are not doing enough to push consumers to understand that there are more than “plastic” out there, and that we should call them by their names (PE, PP, PS, etc), and to push industries to consolidate and close their value chains.
Accordingly to the Waste Management Association in Sweden, the overall waste amount in Sweden declined in 2016 when compared to 2015 by 11 kilos per person (Avfall Sverige); nonetheless, it also showed that the amount of plastic packaging increased by 35 percent. So who would you blame? Producers from not putting more effort to close the loop, consumers for not decreasing their consumption and demanding for more sustainable solutions, or governments for their poor plans on waste management for plastic residues? I think there are a lot of people to blame in this topic… #FoodForThought