In January Theresa May pledged to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042. The commitment was part of the government’s 25-year plan to improve the natural environment. A week later came the European Commission announcement of targets to cut plastic waste across the continent by 2030, with the objective that every piece of packaging used across Europe will be reusable or recyclable.
Since then many market leaders in the UK have committed, voluntarily, to reducing and even removing reliance on plastics in their everyday operations.
Eradicating waste plastic is not going to be easy, but the Government and EU pledges for a clean-up by 2042 and 2030 is a very long time to wait. We consider here how the development sector can tackle this complex and critical issue.
The plastics ‘cycle’
Synthetic plastic does not biodegrade. There is ample evidence – from litter on the coast of Svaarlbard to micro plastics in Antarctica – that plastic waste from human activity is now affecting the entire global ecosystem. Some 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s.
While much of this is hidden from view in landfill, a significant proportion will take over 400 years to decompose, with attendant risk of leaking pollutants into the soil and ground water. Separately some 12 million tonnes of plastics enter oceans across the globe each year, persisting, even in uninhabited areas, on the sea floor, in the water column, the sea surface and shorelines.
Thanks to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet, it’s no longer possible to ignore that plastics in the oceans are causing huge ecological impacts, directly when ingested by animals and indirectly by light deprivation, anoxia, toxin release, and giving pathogens a foothold for invasion. The shocking evidence that the risk of disease in irreplaceable coral habitats increases from 4% to 89% when corals are in contact with plastic emphasises the need for action.
So too do effects on humans. Alarming research by Ghent University in 2014 showed that those who regularly eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year.
The challenge isn’t simply about oversupply, or how we handle unwanted plastics. Since 2012 British companies have shipped around 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong – this is some two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports. China has this year banned the import of plastic waste and imposed stricter quality restrictions on imported cardboard, causing immediate and serious impacts on the UK’s recycling capacity and increased risk of plastic waste being stockpiled or ending up in landfill. It’s a sobering thought that putting a plastic bottle in a recycling bin here in the UK may inadvertently increase marine plastic pollution.
Using Less Plastic
That plastic constitutes a significant and growing threat to human health might be the spur to action that persuades governments to act where ecological impacts have not. Regardless of any upscaling of UK recycling capacity, the best way of reducing plastic waste is to become more resource efficient and use less plastic.
It is possible to change usage behaviour – the incidence of plastic bags recorded on UK beaches has dropped by 22% since the bag charge was introduced in 2011. But it’s not just about bags and packaging, critical as it is to get on top of their use. Plastics are used in every aspect of modern living and offer immense benefits to society. Finding useful alternatives demands investment in new technologies to find, and quickly, effective substitutes for mass production of the hydrocarbon sourced materials which have been used for more than 50 years. And alternatives must offer an equally useful range of functional attributes as plastics. The characteristics needed to aid reuse and break down of plastic packaging are very different to those needed for high strength and durability of long term functions, such as for pipework, roofing and insulation in construction uses, or for motor vehicle parts.
The Chancellor stated in his Spring Statement on 13 March that the Treasury intends to explore how economic incentives can drive innovation, for example, by stimulating businesses to develop and integrate new technology or encouraging growth in the recycling sector by addressing barriers to investment. It’s a first step towards managing the problem, but still not enough to change the culture of plastic use in the UK. What is needed to make significant reductions to the waste that we produce are strong financial and regulatory incentives that act as both carrot and stick.
Designing out waste in the landscape sector
As a Practice driven by sustainable principles, Landmark has always invested time and effort to ensure that aesthetics and durability in our operations and designs is matched by environmental performance. Recycling is embedded in all that we do, from office systems to field work and professional services. At this time of year, for example, our ecologists chase us for used plastic bottles, with which to make newt traps for field surveys. Another example of sustainable practice is our stock of reptile mats, made at our base from bitumen felt, and then cleaned and redeployed many times on a range of different sites and projects.
Whilst use of natural materials in landscape design is intrinsically more energy efficient and emission reducing in the full life cycle of the development than using man made products, there are times when plastics are specified for precise tasks in landscape schemes. In these situations we source recycled plastic, which can be re-purposed and formed into standard dimensions, such as for edging, decking, railings and other practical uses, and composites which mix recycled plastic with sawdust or other wood products. Added pigments can be used to create integral colour, eliminating the need for paint and frequent maintenance. We advise our clients to check the recycled content of product, and to seek out 100% recycled content.
 Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Geyer, et al. Science Advances. Vol 3, no.7, 2017
 Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean, Ocean Conservancy & McKinsey Centre for Business and Environment, 2015
 Van Cauwenberghe L, Janssen C, 2014. Microplastics in bivalves cultured for human consumption. Environmental Pollution, 193, 65-70
 MCS living without single-use plastic 2017
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