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Megan Miller

Market Sector Leader

Plastic has become a symbol of man-made environmental damage, with immediate connotations of oceanic pollution and harm to wildlife. However, plastic is an incredibly useful and resourceful material. Without plastic, the device you’re reading this on wouldn’t exist. From medical advances to food quality and home insulation, plastic is an essential part of our lives – and will be for many years to come. So instead of demonizing plastic, isn’t it time to reposition the discussion to work out how to better balance our relationship with it?

In defense of plastic

Despite its bad reputation in recent years, it’s hard to ignore the irreplaceable positive benefits humankind has derived from plastic. Plastic has been pivotal in the development of computers, cell phones, protective helmets, child safety seats and airbags. Plastic has undeniably advanced modern technology and shaped the world we live in today.

Part of this is due to its composition. Plastic has a high thermal/electrical insulation, which makes it ideal for cost-effectively keeping our homes warm. It also has a high strength-to-weight ratio, corrosion resistance, and outstanding durability at a relatively low cost. These properties make plastic resource-efficient, saving energy and costs in various industries, from manufacturing to transportation.

A good example is in food production, where plastic is used to keep food fresh for longer – which is essential in food logistics and feeding the world’s population. Much is made of waste plastic, and rightly so (more on this shortly). But let’s put things into perspective. Researchers believe that plastic production accounts for nearly 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while food production generates around 30%. Feeding our growing population is a priority, and this process has to be optimized in terms of efficiency and sustainability. We must eradicate food waste as well as waste plastic – but not plastic itself.

Disposal and pollution problems

Let’s briefly remind ourselves of the much-maligned plastic problems. Non-biodegradable plastics are a menace to all life on earth. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floating between Hawaii and California, covers an estimated surface area of more than 600,000 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers), an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. Additionally, plastic kills sea life, and is even ingested by fish, which then enter the human food chain. The effects of microplastic in our diet are still unknown but it's clear that we don't want people consuming plastic.

A need for plastics that are more easily recyclable

We need to find a way to greatly reduce the impact plastic has on our environment, yet there is also a practical necessity for plastic. One solution is to create plastics that can be more easily recycled, which will decrease the amount of waste produced and encourage greater circularity.

According to the World Economic Forum, about 98% of single-use plastic products are made from fossil fuels. At the other end of the life cycle, only 9% of plastics are currently recycled globally and far too much of it ends up in landfills. While glass and aluminium have high recycling rates, many plastics cannot be recycled – even though packaging indicates that they are recyclable.

There’s a clear need to optimize all stages of the plastic life cycle, moving away from high-energy production, and improving the amount of plastic that can be repurposed and reused.

Helping manufacturers to improve plastic circularity

There is ever-increasing scrutiny around corporate responsibility, ESG reporting, and stakeholder engagement. Many organisations want to improve the sustainability of their operations when it comes to lowering their carbon footprint, reducing emissions and limiting plastic waste.

However, precious few know how to achieve this without simply “turning off the tap” to minimize plastic production and consumption where possible. Investment is needed to advance plastics production and recycling facilities, but there is a wide range of factors to consider.

Moreover, the key lies in fostering a global culture of recycling. While initiatives are underway in Europe and the US, a truly effective solution demands global cooperation. Countries and manufacturers worldwide must unite in this endeavor, as plastic pollution knows no borders. It's estimated that around 90% plastic that travels through rivers to the ocean comes from just 10 rivers in Asia and Africa.

Practical solutions for better plastic management

Arcadis is playing a vital role in this transition. We’re actively helping organizations navigate the complexities of environmental permitting and regulatory compliance, ensuring a smoother path for businesses to plan and build recycling sites and adopt sustainable practices.

Through practical initiatives such as plastic pellet management at production facilities and cleaning up waterways, Arcadis is addressing the problem at its source. We help reduce air emissions and improve energy efficiency during the manufacturing process. We pave the way for the construction of advanced plastic production and recycling plants, creating plastics that are more biodegradable and removing waste plastic from the environment. Together, we can collectively reframe the narrative around plastic. Instead of castigating plastic, let’s acknowledge its benefits and focus on minimizing its damage. Embracing innovation, encouraging recycling and reuse, and fostering global unity are the stepping stones towards a greener, plastic-conscious future.

Speak to us to learn how we could help you reduce waste and increase plastic recycling.

AUTHOR

Megan Miller

Megan Miller

Market Sector Leader