World Environment Day 2018: The path to plastic pollution awareness

Chosen by this year’s host, India, the theme of World Environment Day 2018 is “Beat Plastic Pollution,” and it is a call to action for all citizens to consider how to make changes in our everyday lives to reduce plastic pollution.

The Chair joins World Environment Day celebrations by influencing change in improving waste management, reducing single-use plastics, and promoting research into alternatives.

WED 2018

World Environment Day 2018 campaign image.

Today, the UNESCO Chair in Life Cycle and Climate Change ESCI-UPF joins World Environment Day (WED) celebrations, a United Nations’ yearly event held on June 5th since 1974, in order to encourage global awareness and action for the protection of our environment. The theme for WED 2018, hosted this year by India, “Beat Plastic Pollution,” invites us all to consider how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the plastic pollution. Every year, “up to 13 million tons of plastic leak into our oceans, where it smothers coral reefs and threatens vulnerable marine wildlife. The plastic that ends up in the oceans can circle the Earth four times in a single year, and it can persist for up to 1,000 years before it fully disintegrates,” according to organisers. In this regard, the Research Lines in Waste Management and in New Materials at the Chair engage with this call to action, “Beating Plastic Pollution,” by influencing change in improving waste management, reducing single-use plastics, and promoting research into alternatives.

Improving Waste Management

“Nearly one third of the plastics we use escape our collection systems. Once in the environment, plastics don’t go away, they simply get smaller and smaller, last a century or more and increasingly find their way into our food chain. Thus, waste management and recycling schemes are essential to a new plastics economy,” states the United Nations (UN). Non-efficient waste management procedures in so many countries are producing negative impacts on the environment, being beaches, seas and oceans some of the most polluted ecosystems due to the marine litter. “In this framework, the key issue is to collect, recycle and reuse the plastic already produced to prevent this material from leaving the system, go to a landfill or stay in the environment a long time after they are discarded, an essential step for circular economy,” says Alba Bala, senior researcher and responsible of the Waste Management Research Line at the Chair. “The key actor for a successful circular economy transition is the final consumer, because without user commitment it is difficult to reintroduce plastic into the system, specially plastic primary packaging materials,” she adds. Also, to address plastic pollution “we need global leadership and urgent action by all stakeholders, including government and public administrations, as well as private sector.”

“We cannot fully eliminate plastic as a material since it is widely used, but we need to use it more responsibly and make a proper management of global plastic consumption to minimize its impacts on the environment,” says Didem Civancik-Uslu, PhD Candidate of the New Materials Research Line at the Chair. In this sense, “different waste management alternatives are being currently discussed at national and international level,” explains Bala: “The ‘door-to-door recycling scheme of household solid wastes’, with a strict control, and the ‘pay-as-you-throw’ (PAYT) scheme, which gives you a tax incentive that can be applied as a discount on the fee you pay for municipal garbage,” she adds.

Likewise, in waste-management terms, it is important to avoid different types of plastics to be mixed, according to its origin or final stage. “Regarding its origin, there are conventional plastics or bioplastics—plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, or microbiota. With respect to the final stage, there are biodegradable plastics or non-biodegradable plastics,” explains Bala. “Bioplastic isn't always biodegradable. So that, it is important to make people aware of the importance of the various types of plastic waste and its proper management.” The researcher stresses that consumers should be able to choose among different plastic options through ecolabelling to achieve a more efficient waste management.

Reducing Single-Use Plastics

The UN stresses that the 50 % of the consumer plastics are designed to be used only once, providing a momentary convenience before being discarded. “Plastic is a very durable material and, therefore, it would be interesting to use this material for applications that really require this durability,” highlights Bala. The researcher proposes to find strategies to ensure long-term performance properties of produced plastics. As an alternative to petrochemical plastics, Bala proposes to use bioplastics.

In addition to being conscious of our material usage and waste, the UN highlights that “eliminating single-use plastics, both from design chains to our consumer habits, is a critical first step to beat plastic pollution.” In response to the claim, the European Commission has recently approved the new EU-wide rules to target the 10 single-use plastic products that generate the 70% of the marine litter in Europe. “The ban will apply to plastic cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and sticks for balloons which will all have to be made exclusively from more sustainable materials instead,” according to the European Commission. In this regard, Gonzalo Blanca-Alcubilla, PhD Candidate of the Waste Management Research Line at the Chair, explains that some of these products, such as the cotton buds or the straws, are not indispensable for our daily lives and, furthermore, “due to its small size, these products generate lots of technical problems associated with waste management.”

Further research is needed

Towards reducing plastic pollution, “further research is needed to make sustainable plastic alternatives both economically viable and widely available,” says UN. The Chair contributes to this strategy devoting resources to pollution prevention research. The New Materials Research Line studies plastic materials’ conditions from the beginning of the production process in order to increase their durability by adding minerals: “Minerals can improve the mechanical properties of any kind of plastic packaging. Also, by reducing the use of petrochemicals we can improve the sustainability of plastics,” stresses Civancik-Uslu.

Apart from research and innovation efforts, scientists at the Chair agree that the education is an essential step to raise awareness and commitment for tomorrow's children. Bala confesses that “the education of young children plays a fundamental role to adopt more sustainable habits that they can apply, day by day, to home routines.” Civancik-Uslu also believes that we can increase awareness through social media channels, widely use among youth. “In addition, it is important to show real examples where the recycling schemes had succeeded to change sceptical opinions,” concludes Blanca-Alcubilla.



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