We need to reimagine our relationship with plastics to prevent plastic pollution becoming a threat to humanity that is as significant as climate change, say experts.
Researchers in the University of Birmingham’s Plastics Network argue it will be impossible to achieve a sustainable solution without adopting a whole-systems approach that is underpinned by science, driven by policy and informed by public expectations.
In a new report launched Friday, 27 January at the Exchange in Birmingham, the researchers set out a series of questions that need to be addressed if we are to achieve plastic neutrality by the time we intend to reach carbon neutrality (net zero).
Fern Elsdon-Baker, Professor of Science, Knowledge and Belief in Society at the University of Birmingham, is a co-author of the report. In her view, oceans of words have already been spilled over the plastic problem, but there are still big and worrying gaps in our knowledge and a high risk of unintended negative social and environmental consequences from the well-meaning solutions currently being proposed.
“We need to start by taking a step back and asking the fundamental questions about the future we want to build. By bringing together the right disciplines and stakeholders from across society, we can create entirely new pathways towards a sustainable plastic future,” she said
Challenges identified by the Network include:
- Understanding who has responsibility for the plastics problem and who could ‘join the dots’ to bring socially, environmental, and economically viable solutions together.
- Re-examining the value of plastics, which currently does not reflect its environmental cost or conversely the value they can contribute to society, health, and wellbeing.
- Finding ways to replace or reduce plastic usage that do not increase environmental or societal harm.
- Avoiding misleading messaging, or ‘greenwashing’, around terms such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘bioplastic’, or ‘compostable’ and work to align public expectations of how plastic should be produced, labelled and disposed of, and the realities of what is currently implemented.
“Unless we adopt a systemic approach to these challenges, that addresses the problem from the ground up, the solutions of today are likely to be the problems of tomorrow,” concluded Elsdon-Baker