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‘Solving the plastic waste problem is not science fiction’

Piano keys, ping-pong balls and guitar plectrums. What do these three have in common? They’re made of plastic. UK materials scientist Professor Mark Miodownik talks about taking plastics recycling to the next level.

Worldwide production of plastics exceeds 400 million tonnes per year while plastic waste is rapidly increasing. The fact is, most discussions about plastic waste are very one-sided. ‘When you think about it, plastic isn’t the root of the problem,’ Miodownik says.

‘We may be talking about fighting waste but it’s really part of a much larger issue. Consumption – and an unsustainable market pushed purely by economics,’ he observes. ‘Producers and politicians all play along. In a way, plastic is the “fall guy” of an unsustainable industry.’

Be bold, be ambitious

Besides, simply reducing plastics available on the market isn’t the answer. ‘It’s not about producing less plastic, it’s about producing better materials,’ Miodownik argues. So how can this be achieved? ‘Ideally, everything that is manufactured should be recyclable and, better yet, contain a high quantity of recycled content.’

Professor Mark Miodownik won the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

Currently, around 75% of the UK’s plastic bottles are recycled, according to the British Plastics Federation. ‘Personally, I would be much happier knowing they each contain 75% recycled PET,’ the materials scientists adds. In most cases, recycled content in plastic products still lingers at 25% or maybe 50%. ‘We need to be more bold, more ambitious when it comes to recycled content,’ Miodownik stresses.

Big impact changes

It would also be helpful if the packaging of every product contained a label with recycling stats, he suggests. Phasing out non-standard polymers and composites would be a great addition – this would create a homogeneous waste stream that is easy to sort and recycle.

‘For example, I would love to see all shampoo bottles have the same colour, and made from the same type of plastic. It’s probably a marketeer’s nightmare but, in a perfect world, all PET bottles would be transparent,’ the scientist says with a laugh. ‘So you see that, by making such little tweaks to the system, we can solve the plastic waste problem. It’s not science fiction.’

The full interview with Mark Miodownik will be published in our upcoming isue.

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