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Interview with Prof Karl Williams, UCLan, on plastics pollution

Plastics pollution presents a major threat to our planet. Watch Prof Karl Williams from the University of Central Lancashire explain more.
So, thank you very much, Professor Williams, for joining us today. And so the first question that we would like to ask relates to plastics. So, plastics are convenient, sturdy and practical, and they feature widely in consumers’ lives from food packaging to toys. So, what are the problems with plastics? I think one of the major problems with plastics is that we now live in a plastic world. The way the whole society, is based on the fantastic properties that plastics offer. And if you look back in history and go back 100 years, the way we live now you couldn’t live without plastics. The problem with plastics is, one, the majority of plastics are made from fossil fuels so they’re a dwindling resource.
They also take a lot of energy to actually make them because they’re made from oil, and that has to be dug out of the ground. There’s a lot of embedded energy and carbon that goes into them, and therefore there’s a lot of carbon emissions. So, by making plastics we’re adding to the climate change. On the plus side, if they are correctly recycled, they can be reused over and over again, if they’re thermo plastics. But the other challenge is… Sorry, the main challenge for plastics, is the mismanagement of plastics. So, when we see all those pictures of plastics in the oceans, and plastics out in the countryside, and everywhere, that’s mismanagement rather than a reflection of the problem with plastics.
So, plastics pollution is a term that we hear being used frequently in media now. What does plastics pollution involve? Plastic pollution is really is plastic being in the wrong place. And there’s two types of plastic pollution. There’s the visible plastic pollution that we’re all familiar with, like plastic bottles, plastic bags, and we’ve seen the images of plastics on beaches and in the ocean, and in public spaces. So that’s the mismanagement of how we deal with our plastic. There’s no excuse for that if we have a robust waste management and recycling infrastructure in place. The other type of plastic pollution, is the plastic pollution that we don’t see and that’s the micro plastics.
That’s very, very tiny particles of plastics that get into the environment, and once they’re in the environment, they interact with organisms. And this comes from for example, from your car tyres of your car. So as you drive around, your car tyre wears away and all those little bits of plastic which come from the tyres, end up on the road. They end up in the drains, and then they end up in the river systems, and then they’re dispersed into the environment. And they’re very, very hard to manage.
Okay. Can you possibly quantify the problem of plastics pollution to help us understand the scale of the problem? Yes I can. So, to give it in a positive way, so in 2019, within the European Union, we manage to recycle about 9.4 million tonnes of post consumer plastic. So that’s plastic that we have handled as consumers. But I really need to put that into some form of context in the fact that within the European Union, in the same period, 61.8 million tonnes of plastic was produced. And worldwide, it’s about 359 million tonnes. And globally, about 58% of plastics are not recycled. And they end up being discarded into the environment.
So you start to see the scale of the problem, just with the visible plastic pollution, ignoring the whole micro plastic pollution side of it.
What initiatives are there here in the UK, and globally in order to deal with plastics pollution? So the main initiatives to deal with global plastic pollution, is to stop the plastic getting into the environment in the first place. And that’s done by a series of mechanisms that is legislation and policy that’s in place. So, within the UK, you’ll probably be familiar that we have recycling targets, we also have laws and legislation about littering, about dumping as well, and we also have a system of actually dealing with all our waste, of which plastic is one component of it. We also have laws about the shipment of waste.
And, that’s one of the things that comes up quite a lot on the news, is the fact that such and such a company have had to go and collect all their waste that they sent to China, or they sent to Malaysia, or wherever. So, there are these global legislation, global conventions, so there is the Basel Convention. The challenge on a global scale, is that a lot of countries which have to deal with this plastic waste, don’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with waste, let alone plastic waste. They don’t have the enforcement of the legislation, and also they don’t have the culture of dealing with waste in certain ways.
What can we then as consumers do, in order to use less plastic? Well, the first thing we can do as consumers, and I’m a consumer as well, is to think about what we’re buying. Do we need to buy prepackaged vegetables? Or can we buy loose vegetables? Do we need to buy products that contain a lot of excess plastic packaging? The other thing we can do as well to help the whole system, is to buy products that we know are made from recycled plastics, because it’s all well and good collecting lots and lots of plastic and recycling them, but if there’s no incentive to put them into products, then you’re just collecting them without any reason to do anything with them.
So we can deliberately buy products that have recycled plastic in. And, the other thing is that we can stop buying products that we think have too much plastic packaging associated with them. Or buying products in which it says on the label, “this product can’t be recycled at the moment”. And if you look at that, if you start looking at labels on products that you buy it will say, “outer container recyclable, plastic sleeve non-recyclable”. It’s a case of becoming a lot more aware as consumers, and being more fussy about what we buy rather than just accepting whatever the manufacturers give us.

In this video, Prof Karl Williams from the University of Central Lancashire explores the challenges associated with plastics pollution and explains what we as consumers can do to use less plastic.

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