The dishonesty of 'green' plastics
Plastic pollution poses a clear threat to the environment. The plastics industry is forecast to gobble up between 14 to 19 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2040. Micro, nano-plastics and the many chemicals they carry contaminate every ecosystem on an industrial scale. Businesses are rightly working to reduce their contribution.
However, there is still little transparency about their true progress. Humans are always adept at seeding confusion through clever language and the plastic lexicon has become very misleading.
For example, ‘bioplastics' can mean those derived from plants, which is certainly an improvement on using fossil fuels. The percentage of plant content is often not stated. Some ‘bio-based' solutions actually contain 80 per cent traditional fossil fuel polymers whilst others may be 100 per cent plant derived. There is no consumer facing regulation to inform on this.
More concerning is that many bioplastics are still chemically modified, synthesised, and polymerised, creating a material that is bio-identical to fossil plastic, with the same end-of-life problems.
Words like ‘biodegradable' also abound in our new material language. It sounds green, except that it doesn't specify whether the breakdown process will take two months or 200 years, tells you nothing about what the material will actually ‘biodegrade' into, or under what conditions. These plastics also cannot generally be recycled in existing waste streams, so they usually end up in landfill, where they produce the potent greenhouse gas, methane.
And how about that new ‘compostable' plastic-lined coffee cup in the office canteen? If you think you can put it in the heap in your garden, you're probably mistaken. This subset of biodegradability usually requires industrial composting, for which there is highly limited capacity. Despite great efforts at doing better, most of these ‘greener' cups will just end up buried or burned.
Then we come to the ‘self-destructing' plastics. Already banned in the EU, this new form of oxo biodegradable plastics are appearing in the UK now. The language again sounds like a dream - ‘recycle me before I self-destruct!', suggesting a fossil fuel plastic cup may simply disappear into our soil, with no contaminants or chemical traces. Many UK soil scientists disagree.
‘Recyclable' is perhaps the most responsibility-deflection word of all. We've had decades now of businesses believing it is sufficient to be able to claim they use a technically ‘recyclable' material whilst having no responsibility for the fact that there is little infrastructure to actually recycle it. Those days are now behind us. Consumers, legislators and now the United Nations member states are creating a global wave that will demand a different level of transparency and responsibility for those that continue to use plastic as their chosen material.
Recyclable plastic products and packaging also cannot simply be melted down and used again indefinitely, as the term implies. Plastic is downcycled, not recycled. Quality degrades with each cycle, limiting how many times plastic can be recycled and for what purposes. There is also mounting evidence of health risks from ‘recycled' plastics that may further limit use.
We are at a pivotal point in the plastic crisis. The United Nations Global Plastics Treaty presents an opportunity to agree on a clear set of definitions that will help business in their claims. The 190 member states are now working on the legally binding treaty content itself and the next three UN negotiation sessions will hopefully prove that mankind can stem the plastic tide, protect the health of future generations and use this plastic crisis as a gateway to positively impacting the climate crisis.
But, for now, the industry needs to be predictive, create their own strategies, plotting a seismic shift in manufacturing processes, knowing that change is coming fast. And they need to communicate to their clients and customers using transparent and honest language that they recognise the imperative.
There is a positive narrative here and we need to grab it. The plastic crisis has given us the catalyst for a new era of tremendous innovation. For decades we have depended on plastic as the default for almost everything. We have not dedicated the resource and funding into creating entirely new materials, fit for a different future. Imagine 10 years from now, with a much needed transformation in materials and systems innovation, we can finally experience and explore what true circularity can bring us.
We need a fresh new language for this materials revolution; one based on truth and transparency. With change comes opportunity, so let's bin the greenwash and co-solve this together.