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The struggle of wanting to be green

If raw materials are likened to the family, then one could certainly argue that plastic is the black sheep. It gathers a huge amount of attention, although little of it is positive. Is this fair?

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A line often repeated in the industry is that plastic is all around us. From the packaging of our food, the clothes we wear to the electronic devices we are so fond of. In most cases, we don’t even notice it because, as with many things in life, we don’t see what’s right in front of us.

The truth is, plastics are not bad – certainly not all of them. It’s what we do with it. Plastics can and are being recycled although, granted, some more than others. Plastic bottle recycling rates are at around 30% in the US and Europe (around 45% in the UK). In South Africa, the figure surpassed 65% in 2019, while Mexico reached 55%. Japan has managed to recycle 85% of its bottles – even though it incinerates more than half of all of its plastic waste.

It’s not all doom and gloom even if the headlines don’t really reflect that. Terms like the ‘war on straws’, ‘waste mountains’ and ‘plastic bag bans’ have resurfaced countless times in the last few years. In 2018, a legislator in California called for US$ 1 000 fines (EUR 850) and six months in jail for waiters providing customers with ‘unsolicited’ plastic straws (the proposal didn’t get the green light).

It makes it sound like recycling plastic is a ‘mission impossible’. Isn’t it the easy way out to simply ban materials that we deem problematic? After straws and shopping bags, what’s next? And what good does it really do if proposed paper alternatives have a bigger CO2 footprint?

People act based on convenience and are slow to embrace change. Whether you’re talking about consumers littering the streets or big brands pumping new products onto the market faster than we can blink. To be frank, we know better. We have realised that relying on virgin materials is not sustainable; we have realised that ocean plastics don’t end up in the water by themselves.

It’s got to do with us. It’s our behaviour that needs to change. We need to invest more in recycling infrastructure, develop more efficient technologies and educate youngsters and adults alike about why you can’t just throw stuff away. That ‘waste’ does have a value.

Not least, we need to ensure a bigger portion of recycled content is included in the products of the future. And we have to design products more smartly for recycling and reuse. This means producers have to step up their game. Making pledges and supporting social media campaigns isn’t enough; leading companies need to put their money where their mouth is to make a difference. And by impressive amounts, too, not just a convenient sum they can happily lose.

Deep down, I know we can accomplish so much more. I’ve talked to recyclers, technology providers, engineers, researchers; they all agree the plastics industry offers great potential for recycling and sustainable design. We have to find a way to unlock this potential and not waste it.

The thing is, people tend to repeat themselves, clinging to bad habits like an insect in a flytrap. It makes sense, I guess. Taking risks is scary and keeps us comfortably grounded, rather than leaping forward. But I hope that we will take the jump anyway – and escape the tunnel vision trap of old-fashioned consumerism.

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