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Brink: Sure, forgo straws and shopping bags, but innovation is key to tackling plastic waste

More than 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year.  Associated Press
More than 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. Associated Press
Published Jul. 19, 2018

Plastic is found in everything from heart stents to fishing nets to athletic clothing. It extends the shelf life of food and improves the fuel efficiency of planes.

Undoubtedly, the wonder product has made our lives easier. Unfortunately, the systems set up to recycle and redeploy plastics can't keep up with ever-increasing production. The result is bad for the environment and a lost business opportunity.

We need to tackle this issue head on. Thankfully, many of you have already made changes in your day-to-day lives. . It will take more than that.

RELATED: We asked readers for tips on how to cut down on plastic waster. Here are 24 they gave us

We need to overhaul the way plastics are designed. Ideally, the materials in each plastic bottle and bag would become much easier to redeploy into new products, over and over again. The more nimble and extended life cycle would benefit both the economy and the natural world.

Some of that experimentation is already underway, but this circular Holy Grail remains far off. Consider the numbers.

• Annual global plastic production has reached 350 million metric tons, equal to 3,900 Nimitz class aircraft carriers. Demand is expected to double in the next 20 years.

• There's already about 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste strewn about the planet, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That's about 75 percent of the plastic ever produced.

• Every year, we pump about 8 million tons of plastics into the oceans. By some estimates, plastic makes up 99 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the enormous collection of waste floating between California and Hawaii.

• In a "business as usual scenario," there will be one ton of plastic in the oceans for every three tons of fish by 2025, the World Economic Forum predicted two years ago. By 2050, plastics will outweigh all the fish.

Plastic is so durable that you can expect most of that waster to be around for decades, if not longer. As it ages, it breaks down into ever smaller pieces, making it easier for plastics to get into the food supply. Scientists are still working out the consequences, but the potential health and environmental effects could become a drag on the economy.

Recycling helps, for sure, but those numbers are equally dismal. The world only recycles about 9 percent of its plastics. In the United States, it's about 25 percent. In most cases, today's recycling only delays the trip to the waste heap. Water bottles, for instance, are rarely turned into more water bottles. Instead, they become synthetic carpet or clothing, or other products that are harder to recycle. If they don't become litter, they end up in a landfill or an incinerator, both of which have serious disadvantages.

Recycling is also badly fragmented, with different cities and countries employing their own rules and machinery. The result: Designers create plastic products and packaging that can't be recycled, and recycling businesses use machines that can't handle some of the designs. Better aligning the two ends of the system would create more recycling opportunities, and more ways to make money.

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Another hurdle is cost. Plastic is popular because in many cases it's less expensive. Supermarkets introduced plastic shopping bags in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a cheaper alternative to paper. Plastic is also comparatively light and strong, reducing fuel and transportation costs. It's no wonder that more than a quarter of plastics are used for packaging.

So a weapon in this fight will be innovation. One possibility is to find ways to use fewer and less complicated ingredients. That could make plastic easier to break down into its component parts to redeploy into new products. Water bottles would become packaging material that becomes a car dashboard that becomes a water bottle, and on and on.

It won't work exactly like that, maybe nothing like that, but the idea is that the materials foster a multi-use environment. Extending the life cycle is one way to lower costs, even if the initial cost of the redesigned plastic is higher.

RELATED: Plastic pollution in Tampa Bay area is bigger than just straws

Some of this innovation is underway. There's a push to create a truly biodegradable plastic at a competitive price. Some companies are experimenting with greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

The World Economic Forum recommends setting up a Global Plastics Protocol, which is getting some traction from companies like Unilever, the enormous consumer goods provider behind dozens of brands including Dove, Lipton and Vaseline. The group of industry experts would set standards on how packaging is labelled and designed and what materials would be released into the marketplace, which could make recycling easier and more efficient. The group would also investigate pressing questions like the best ways to stimulate the market for plastic recyclables.

"Flying around the world without international air traffic control standards and surfing the web without global IP standards would be impossible," the organization concluded in a its report, The New Plastics Economy. This "would provide a core set of standards on which to innovate."

Like forgoing plastic straws or charging for shopping bags, a set of global standards alone won't be enough to tackle such a thorny challenge. But doing nothing shouldn't be an option.

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.

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