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Plastics and Recycling – Attitudes are Changing! - Dr Peter Matthews CBE HonFSE CEnv

Posted By Phil Underwood, 26 February 2018
Updated: 26 February 2018

Plastics and Recycling – Attitudes are Changing!

I have worked in environmental management for 53 years and I have never seen a time like this! Attitudes towards plastics and recycling are definitely changing.  

Until recently, many of my friends and relatives made relatively quick and independent judgements while deciphering what waste went into which bin. Any more detailed thinking and strategizing about this was simply viewed as “that sort of thing Peter does for a living.” But things have changed and I’m now persistently asked questions about these matters. But, to be quite frank, I’m not sure of the right answers.

The recycling information on packaging is often difficult to find, in very small print and it’s inconsistent and confusing. Which bin should the cling film that’s been soiled in use go into? Am I supposed to help solve the ‘Pringle tin problem’ by attempting to separate multi-material packaging? These are just some examples of the head-scratching that’s going on in many kitchens now.


The 25 Year Environment Plan

I was delighted to see recycling and plastics as well as many other popular issues picked up in the recently published 25 Year Environment Plan (YEP). It’s headline target of reducing avoidable plastic waste by 2042 is not the sort of commitment I would have expected a year ago. And, whilst there’s been some negative media focus on the Plan’s delayed publication, my own view is that the document is very welcome and it is comprehensive, perhaps more so for having incorporated issues that have come to the fore over the last couple of years. 

I think many initial reactions to the Plan had been given without detailed study of it alongside the Industrial and Clean Growth Strategies or perhaps because of the information-overload of this lengthy document with multiple goals and policies. Indeed, a standalone summary of these goals and policies would be helpful. 

Overall, though, I think the Plan does well to address and tie together people’s day-to-day worries and big, strategic themes. 

Media Influence

It’s interesting that the avalanche of media and public attention on the impact of plastic bags, food packaging, single-use bottles and coffee cups, straws and even tea-bags and glitter (!) is often attributed to the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, which is actually filled with images of turtles ensnared in plastic fishing nets, beaches strewn with things like discarded ropes and even a whale with a plastic bucket in its mouth. I talked about this kind of plastic waste in a previous blog, terming it ‘ersatz-plankton’ and arguing that, even with rigorous domestic litter control, there will inevitably be plastic waste that ‘leaks’ into the environment. 

We must prevent the continued ‘survival’ of these persistently problematic plastics, and I’m pleased to see the 25 YEP address their biodegradability. Seeking alternatives to synthetic plastics in the so-called ‘bioplastics’, such as starch- and cellulose-based products like bamboo fibre and cellulose micro beads, will also be absolutely crucial.  

There are, of course, many unanswered questions, such as whether such bioplastics are robust enough for products such as ropes and buckets and how easy these will be to reuse rather than recycle. Again, I’m pleased to see the 25 YEP recognise the opportunities for this kind of technological development alongside strategizing around the bioeconomy. Indeed, there are several strategies that underpin the Plan, such as on chemicals, biodiversity, waste and resources, litter and clean air. 

It seems to me, though, that there’s a missing piece in this jigsaw: a Plastics Strategy. Given how high-profile the topic is, it seems odd that there isn’t a specific strategy around it, and I advocate one. If strategies work for other parts of our green economy, then this should work for plastics. 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society for the Environment. 

Tags:  25 Year Environment Plan  25YEP  Bioeconomy  Blue Planet  CEnv  Chartered Environmentalist  Clean Growth Strategy  DEFRA  HonFSE  Industrial Strategy  packaging  Plastics  Pollution  Recycling  Waste 

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