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10 Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution

While soaking up the relaxing cadence of crashing waves on the beach, no one wants to think about how the ocean has basically become garbage soup . But here’s the buzz-killing reality: There are millions of tons of debris floating around in that water—and most of it is plastic.

how to solve the problem of plastic

This constant barrage (the equivalent of 136 billion milk jugs each year, estimates a  study  published in the journal Science) poses a serious danger to marine life. Animals can get tangled up in this trash or ingest it—either because they mistake it as prey or because the plastic has been broken down into tiny particles by seawater.

Plastic, of course, is uniquely problematic because it’s nonbiodegradable and therefore sticks around for a lot longer (like up to 1,000 years longer) than other forms of trash. And we're not just talking about people dumping their garbage overboard. Around 80 percent of marine litter actually originates on land—either swept in from the coastline or carried to rivers from the streets during heavy rain via storm drains and sewer overflows.

So the best thing we can do to protect our waterways is try to keep as much plastic as possible out of the waste stream in the first place. The good news? There are many small ways you can have a big impact.

1. Wean yourself off disposable plastics.

Ninety percent of the plastic items in our daily lives are used once and then chucked: grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Take note of how often you rely on these products and replace them with reusable versions. It only takes a few times of bringing your own bags to the store, silverware to the office, or travel mug to Starbucks before it becomes habit.

2. Stop buying water.

Each year, close to 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed in the trash. Carry a reusable bottle in your bag, and you’ll never be caught having to resort to a Poland Spring or Evian again. If you’re nervous about the quality of your local tap water, look for a model with a built-in filter.

3. Boycott microbeads.

Those little plastic scrubbers found in so many beauty products—facial scrubs, toothpaste, body washes—might look harmless, but their tiny size allows them to slip through water-treatment plants. Unfortunately, they also look just like food to some marine animals. Opt for products with natural exfoliants, like oatmeal or salt, instead.

4. Cook more.

Not only is it healthier, but making your own meals doesn’t involve takeout containers or doggy bags. For those times when you do order in or eat out, tell the establishment you don’t need any plastic cutlery or, for some serious extra credit, bring your own food-storage containers to restaurants for leftovers.

5. Purchase items secondhand.

New toys and electronic gadgets, especially, come with all kinds of plastic packaging—from those frustrating hard-to-crack shells to twisty ties. Search the shelves of thrift stores, neighborhood garage sales, or online postings for items that are just as good when previously used. You’ll save yourself a few bucks, too.

6. Recycle (duh).

It seems obvious, but we’re not doing a great job of it. For example, less than 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled. Confused about what can and can’t go in the bin? Check out the number on the bottom of the container. Most beverage and liquid cleaner bottles will be #1 (PET), which is commonly accepted by most curbside recycling companies. Containers marked #2 (HDPE; typically slightly heavier-duty bottles for milk, juice, and laundry detergent) and #5 (PP; plastic cutlery, yogurt and margarine tubs, ketchup bottles) are also recyclable in some areas. For the specifics on your area, check out Earth911.org’s  recycling directory .

7. Support a bag tax or ban.

Urge your elected officials to follow the lead of those in San Francisco, Chicago, and close to 150 other cities and counties by introducing or supporting legislation that would make plastic-bag use less desirable .

8. Buy in bulk.

Single-serving yogurts, travel-size toiletries, tiny packages of nuts—consider the product-to-packaging ratio of items you tend to buy often and select the bigger container instead of buying several smaller ones over time.

9. Bring your own garment bag to the dry cleaner.

Invest in a zippered fabric bag and request that your cleaned items be returned in it instead of sheathed in plastic. (And while you’re at it, make sure you’re frequenting a dry cleaner that skips the perc, a toxic chemical found in some cleaning solvents.)

10. Put pressure on manufacturers.

Though we can make a difference through our own habits, corporations obviously have a much bigger footprint. If you believe a company could be smarter about its packaging, make your voice heard. Write a letter, send a tweet, or hit them where it really hurts: Give your money to a more sustainable competitor.

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Plastic pollution is a huge problem—and it’s not too late to fix it

Correcting our plastic waste problem requires a fundamental change in thinking about how plastics are made, used, and discarded, two new studies say.

The global campaign to gain control of plastic waste is one of the fastest-growing environmental causes ever mounted. Yet it hasn’t been enough to make a dent in the growing tonnage of discarded plastic that ends up in the seas.

In the next 10 years, the waste that slides into waterways, and ultimately the oceans , will reach 22 million tons and possibly as much as 58 million tons a year. And that’s the “good” news—because that estimate takes into account thousands of ambitious commitments by government and industry to reduce plastic pollution.

Without those pledges, a business-as-usual scenario would be almost twice as bad. With no improvements to managing waste beyond what’s already in place today, 99 million tons of uncontrolled plastic waste would end up in the environment by 2030.

These two scenarios, the result of new research by an international team of scientists, are a far cry from the first global tally published in 2015, which estimated that an average of 8.8 million tons flow into the oceans annually. That was a figure so startling to the world when it was published five years ago, it helped invigorate the plastic trash movement.

Jenna Jambeck, the University of Georgia engineering professor who calculated that number, also came up with a vivid analogy to put it in context. It would be the equivalent of one dump truck tipping a load of plastic into the ocean every minute every day for a year. Jambeck is also part of the team that came up with the new calculations. But coming up with a new way to visualize 22 to 58 million tons proved a challenge.

“I don’t know. We’re getting into the realm of what’s incomprehensible,” she says. “How about a football stadium filled with plastic every day? Or enough plastic to cover Rhode Island or the country of Luxembourg ankle deep?”

Neither of these new analogies, while accurate, capture the magnitude of what’s at stake. (More: We're drowning in plastic—find out why. )

Like climate change, a lot rides on how the global community responds in the next couple of decades. And, though the parallels between the problem of plastic waste and climate change are obvious—both are rooted in oil, the basic ingredient to make plastics, they are dissimilar in one key way: plastic’s persistence. While there is some possibility, however remote, that technology and restoration of natural ecosystems could remove CO 2 from the atmosphere, there is no such analog for plastic. Virtually indestructible, it doesn’t disappear.

“For me, the biggest issue is the question of permanence,” says George Leonard , the Ocean Conservancy’s chief scientist and a member of the team that produced this newest forecast. “If we don’t get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales. And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late. We will not be able to go back. That massive amount of plastic will be embedded in the ocean’s wildlife essentially forever.”

The power of two

The analysis is the second in recent weeks to look ahead to the future of the plastic economy and conclude that correcting the waste problem—40 percent of plastic manufactured today is disposable packaging—requires a fundamental change in thinking about how plastics are made, used, and discarded.

The new findings were made by a team of scientists funded by the National Science Foundation through the University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center ( SESYNC ). The other project, which looks ahead to 2040, was led by the Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, a London-based environmental advisory and investment firm, and was first made public in July. Both studies were published together in the journal Science in September.

What’s unusual is that two independent scientific working groups, using differing methodologies and timelines, reached the same broad conclusions. Both laid blame for the rising tonnage of plastic in the seas on the growth of plastic production that is outpacing the world’s ability to keep up with collecting plastic trash. They also agreed that reducing surging waste requires reducing surging production of virgin plastic.

“The magnitude of the problem is the same. The difference is in methodology,” says Stephanie Borrelle, a marine biologist in New Zealand and lead author of the SESYNC study. “We have to do something about this and do it soon. Our annual count of leakage doesn’t account for what’s already in the oceans.”

Both projects also concluded that plastic waste could be significantly reduced, though not eliminated, using existing technologies. That includes improving waste collection and recycling, redesigning products to eliminate packaging made from unrecyclable plastics, expanding refillables, and in some cases substituting other materials. But solutions such as recycling, now globally hovering around 12 percent, would also require a massive scaling-up with many additional recycling facilities that don’t exist.

The SESYNC project also calls for cleaning up plastic waste from shorelines, where possible. To give an idea of the scale involved in achieving that goal, it would require a billion people to participate in the Ocean Conservancy’s annual beach cleanup that now attracts about one million volunteers.

“The inconvenient truth now is that this business-as-usual growth in production of new plastics is not compatible with ending plastics in nature,” says Ben Dixon, a former sustainability manager at Royal Dutch Shell and partner at SYSTEMIQ. “That’s the inconvenient truth both studies get to the heart of. We may see more pressures from investors, customers, and a changing of the world underneath the feet of these companies.”

Both projects captured the attention of the plastics industry, which was quick to praise the research, but dismissed the idea of reducing production of virgin plastic as “highly counterproductive and impractical,” in the words of the American Chemistry Council, a trade group for the petrochemical industry. In emailed responses, ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, two of the world’s leading manufacturers of polyethylene, agreed.

“Reducing production to solve the waste problem will, in turn, aggravate the carbon and climate problem as alternative materials have higher emissions,” Dow said.

The manufacturing of plastic emits less CO2 and uses less water than for glass or aluminum. Some argue that such accounting doesn’t always factor in all the costs, such as environmental cleanup and weight. Glass manufacturing emits less CO2 per gram, but glass bottles are heavier. And, in the marine world, they say, it’s beside the point: Turtles eat plastic bags, not glass bottles and aluminum cans.

Todd Spitler, an Exxon spokesman, said the company’s focus will be on “increasing plastic recyclability, supporting improvements in plastic waste recovery and minimizing plastic pellet loss from our operations."

The SESYNC study calls for setting global limits on the production of virgin plastic, a recommendation unlikely to be realized. At the last United Nations Environmental Program meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2019, negotiations to pass a resolution calling for phasing out single-use plastic by 2025 and to draft a legally binding treaty on plastic debris ended in a stalemate.

The Pew/SYSTEMIQ study calls for reducing virgin production by 11 percent, arguing there is enough waste plastic that could be recycled and remade into new plastic to satisfy demand. The problem is that virgin plastic—new resin created from natural gas or oil—is so cheap to make that it undermines the economics of the recycling market. It is simply less expensive to manufacture new plastic than to collect, sort, and process disposable plastic into new feedstock. Especially now, with the collapse of oil prices. (Read more on the SYSTEMIQ study here.)

Plastic production to increase by 2050

In fact, production is forecast to more than double by 2050—increasing to 756 million tons anticipated in 2050 from 308 million tons produced in 2018, according to a report published by the American Chemistry Council in 2019. In the United States, $203 billion has been invested in 343 new or expanded chemical plants to produce plastics, according to ACC figures published last February. Production capacity for ethylene and propylene is projected to increase by 33 to 36 percent, according to an estimate by the Center for International Environmental Law.

Keith Christman , the ACC’s managing director of plastics markets, says the demand for plastic products, such as lightweight automobile parts and materials used in home construction, including insulation and water piping, is only going to grow.

“New technologies is the direction that we see the industry going,” he says.

Historically, plastic production has increased almost continuously since the 1950s, from 1.8 million tons in 1950 to 465 million tons in 2018. As of 2017, 7 billion of the 8.8 billion tons produced globally over that whole period have become waste.

The industry attributes future growth to two factors: the increasing global population and demands for more plastic consumer goods, fueled by the increasing buying power of a growing middle class. The UN projects that the world’s population, now about 7.8 billion, will add about two billion more by 2050, primarily in Asia and Africa. Globally, the middle class is anticipated to expand by 400 million households by 2039—and that is where the plastics market growth will occur.

Africa, to cite one example, shows the complications that lie ahead for gaining control of plastic waste in the coming decades. The continent today generates waste at a low rate by global standards, according to a UN report published last year. It also has limited environmental regulations, weak enforcement, and inadequate systems in place to manage waste. But as its population explodes and becomes more urban, and as buying habits change with higher standards of living, sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to become the dominant region producing municipal waste.

“Everyone is going to need to play a role along the whole value chain,” says Guy Bailey , a leading plastics analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm specializing in energy, chemicals, mining and other research.

“If you are a recycler, it is difficult to make an investment when oil prices completely destroy the economics of your business. If you are a packing company, you are faced with so many choices of materials, it’s hard to know which to pick. If you are a chemical company, you clearly can see the reputational challenge. They risk losing their social license to operate if things go too far. They want to address those challenges.”

The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, founded last year by 50 industry titans, committed to investing $1.5 billion in creating solutions to improve methods for collecting plastic waste and recycling into new products. So far, it has launched 14 projects, many in Southeast Asia and Africa, including in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Ghana.

Jacob Duer, president and CEO, said the new report “reiterates the necessity and the urgency in addressing the issue and underlines the importance of a paradigm shift.”

As the organization, based in Singapore, matures, he says the number of projects and capital investment will grow. But it opposes reducing virgin plastic production.

Both Duer and Martyn Ticknet, head of the Alliance’s project development, see similarities between tackling plastic waste and global efforts to close the hole in the ozone layer that began in the 1970s. Last year the hole had shrunk to its smallest size on record since its discovery.

“We’ve solved major crises before,” Ticknet says. “It takes some time to get going.”

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How Can We Reduce Plastic Pollution?

This article was reviewed by a member of Caltech's Faculty .

Plastic is incredibly useful in modern life, but its widespread use may impair human sustainability. The production and disposal of plastic generates greenhouse gases and hazardous waste. Plastic and the chemicals it emits are building up on land and in oceans, lakes, rivers, ice, and air, and the resulting damage to human and ecological health is currently poorly understood. Most plastic is not recyclable and the vast majority does not biodegrade. Further, plastic products often break down into very small fragments called microplastics that can pollute ecosystems and harm organisms.

Why Plastic Pollution Is a Problem

Plastic is everywhere, from bags and single-use bottles and packages to car parts, pipes, and siding. Likewise, plastic waste is ubiquitous . It has been found, for example, in Arctic sea ice , beer , farm soil , trout and other wild freshwater fish , shrimp and other shellfish , songbirds and seabirds , human placentas , the Great Pacific Garbage Patch , midoceanic atolls , sea caves , the air and rain , and national parks and wilderness areas . While the impact of plastic pollution on sea life is well documented, scientists are just beginning to measure plastic's effects on humans and human fertility , land ecosystems , and crops and other plants .

The United States alone generated 35.7 million tons of plastic waste in 2018. Of that, 27 million tons was landfilled, 5.6 million tons incinerated, and three million tons, or 8.7 percent may have been recycled. (Some reports suggest that plastic scrap shipped abroad for recycling may instead end up in landfills and waterways.)

Researchers estimate that nearly 7,000 million tons of virgin plastic have been manufactured around the world as of 2015. Of that, 9 percent may have been recycled, 12 percent has been incinerated, and the rest is in landfills, still in use, or in our environment. Globally, about one fourth of plastic waste is never collected . In less wealthy countries, waste plastic is sometimes burned in the open, releasing toxic chemicals into the air.

What is plastic made of?

The main ingredients in plastic come from oil and natural gas processing . Different molecules are used to make different types of plastic, giving them distinctive properties and chemical structures. Manufacturers also mix in additives to give specific products their desired qualities. These chemicals, such as colorants, plasticizers, flame-retardants, stabilizers, fillers, reinforcing fibers, and biocides sometimes contain hazardous substances, including lead, arsenic, and cadmium compounds, as well as BPA .

Caltech chemists and their colleagues are designing molecules and nanoscale catalytic devices that may make it possible to produce plastic from chemicals derived from carbon dioxide rather than fossil fuels, with the goal of reducing the climate impact of plastic manufacturing .

What types of plastic can be recycled?

Many consumer plastic products are imprinted with triangular recyclable symbols . But only two kinds of plastic commonly end up recycled : #1, PET or polyethylene terephthalate, and #2, HDPE or high-density polyethylene, and within those, usually only bottles, tubs, and jugs (generally not, for example, salad containers, berry boxes, or clamshell packages). Together, these account for a small fraction of all plastic waste .

Plastics that are recyclable are typically downcycled rather than fully recycled. This means that they are turned into products of lesser value that often cannot be recycled again. When plastic waste is turned into a more valuable product, such as clothing or shoes, that is called upcycling.

Recycling results in a product of equivalent value that can be recycled multiple times. However, the number of times a plastic can be effectively recycled is currently limited.

Recycling Innovation

Chemical recycling is an emerging method that chemists are trying to develop. It would break plastics down into their basic, raw materials, sometimes through the use of customized enzymes , so that they can be remade and recycled an infinite number of times. Using similar approaches, polymers that are more difficult to recycle could potentially be turned into biodegradable compounds and used in cleaning products.

Because different types of plastics have varying properties, plastic products need to be sorted before they can be recycled. Some packaging, usually used to keep food fresh, cannot be sorted or recycled because it is made from layers of different types of plastic. Scientists are working on solvents that could separate multilayer packaging into its component polymers, which could then be used instead of new plastic. Others are making molecules that would allow multiple types of polymers to mix and still create viable recycled materials.

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Plastic waits for recycling landfill in the Philippines.

4 Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution

A whopping 8 million tons of plastic winds up in the ocean each year, endangering wildlife and polluting ecosystems. This number is expected to grow — a recent report from Pew Charitable Trust suggests that without improvements to waste management, 90 million tons of plastic could enter the world's aquatic ecosystems by 2030. Plastics have even been found in people's bodies and in the air .

The problem has only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the necessary increase of single-use plastics for personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks and shields, some governments and businesses have delayed or scrapped plastic bags and packaging bans. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, WRI and UNEP found that more than 100 countries regulated single-use plastic bags.

Since the pandemic, 50 U.S. cities moved away from plastic regulation. In December, the city of Vancouver, Canada postponed fees for disposable cups and its ban on plastic shopping bags for more than one year. Starbucks and Dunkin' put on hold the use of reusable containers. And some recycling programs were shelved in the United States and European Union because of budget cuts due to the pandemic.

While the increased use of plastic is necessary to fight the pandemic, particularly for PPE, countries need to ensure these emergency changes do not derail long-term progress on the passage of laws aimed at reducing plastic pollution. If countries want to build back better after COVID-19, legislative reform on curbing plastic waste is an essential part of the agenda.

A new legislative guide launched today by UNEP and WRI digs deep into how the law can be used to tackle plastic pollution and support a circular plastics economy.

Policy shifts can reduce plastic pollution by incentivizing changes in both business and consumer behavior, as well as in plastic design, alternatives and recycling. Here are four policy and legal approaches from UNEP and WRI's guide that countries can use to reduce their plastic waste permanently:

1. Single-use Plastic Bans

Bans and restrictions on single-use plastic products (that directly prohibit their production, distribution or use) are some of the most widely used and successful legal mechanisms by governments. Some of their success has been due to the flexibility of ban legislation in allowing for exemptions for medical products and other necessary use while promoting the use of alternative products like cloth or paper bags.

The guide also outlines potential unintended consequences that lawmakers must be aware of when enacting and enforcing bans.

2. Taxes and Economic Incentives

Governments can also impose taxes to deter the production or use of single-use plastics, or offer tax breaks, subsidies and other fiscal incentives to encourage alternatives to single-use plastic products.

Portugal and Denmark have used these economic instruments effectively to increase the use of reusable and recycled products, respectively. Taxes and incentives can apply to particular businesses (such as supermarkets or plastic producers) or particular products (like plastic coffee cup lids or soda bottles).

Governments can also use economic incentives to encourage manufacturers to adopt alternatives to plastic (such as using sugar cane to create plastic bags) or to create revenue that can fund plastic waste clean-up efforts.

3. Product Standards

Product standards, certifications and labeling requirements can be designed to educate the public on the environmental impacts of plastic, and on the health and safety hazards involved in their production and use. Legislation on single-use plastic products can set standards on material composition, reusability, recoverability (to ensure the product can be recycled), biodegradability and ensuring products can be composted. This approach can support consumer choice of sustainable products.

4. Extended Producer Responsibility

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs can ensure that manufacturers maintain responsibility for single-use plastic products throughout the whole life cycles of those products. These legislative tools can guarantee more sustainable designs by holding manufacturers responsible for single-use plastics throughout the collection, recovery, recycling or reuse of their products.

There Is No Silver Bullet to Curbing Plastic Pollution

There is no silver bullet to solving the world's plastic problem. It will require governments at both the national and sub-national levels to tackle the regulation of single-use plastic products, determining what policy approaches they want to use and what type of legislation will support their objectives.

There are challenges ahead: a lack of investment and support for the recycling industry to make it competitive, increased production of virgin single-use plastic , and minimal producer responsibility in many countries outside of the EU . There is also no global legal framework to facilitate collective action from multiple countries, no common agreement on which plastics should be phased out , and pressure from plastic manufacturers on lawmakers not to advance on legislation. But to advance action, we need to be deliberate in adopting multi-pronged solutions.

Legislators must consider and adopt different, complementary approaches to be most effective, including bans and restrictions, economic instruments, information standards and labeling, and extended producer responsibility including reuse, recycling and deposit-refund schemes. Supplementary efforts that support these approaches are also essential, like consumer education programs, public procurement requirements, investment in waste management infrastructure and public-private partnerships.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the importance of the short-term use of plastic to curb outbreaks and help people feel safe. But there is no time to have a slow reckoning on the long-term issue of plastic waste. We need increased ambition and innovation by governments, companies and civil society, as well as the thoughtful adoption of a variety of preventative policy and legislative measures to address the scale of the problem.

Relevant Work

How to build a circular economy, 127 countries now regulate plastic bags. why aren't we seeing less pollution, barriers to a circular economy: 5 reasons the world wastes so much stuff (and why it's not just the consumer's fault), how to reduce plastic and other ocean pollution simultaneously, how you can help.

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8 steps to solve the ocean’s plastic problem

how to solve the problem of plastic

From taxes on pollution to an ocean fund, here are some concrete measures we must take. Image:  Clem Onojeghuo

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The plastic crisis is one of the greatest challenges facing Planet Earth.

Each year, at least 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans, 1 and the consequences for sealife are tragic, from choking turtles to poisoning whales. Clearly, the main solution is reducing the amount of plastic we use at the source, but people are also turning to technology, lateral thinking and even other species to find the answer to the monstrous behemoth of plastic on planet earth.

*This article was originally published in 2018

Here are five of the strangest solutions:

Aspergillus tubingensis is a darkly pigmented species of fungus that thrives in warm habitats. It is nothing special to look at, but it has one property that has made it of key interest to scientists. The big problem with plastic is that it doesn’t break down or degrade – and which is why we’ve probably got plastic inside our bodies right now. Finding agents that can break down polymers would help vastly. A group of microbiologists at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan found that Aspergillus tubingensis could degrade polyurethane (PU). “The fungus secretes enzymes that degrade the plastics, and in return, the fungus gets food from it by dissolving the plastics,” said lead author Sehroon Khan. The fungus could be used to break down plastic in landfill.

More on Sustainability

a mushroom

The Ocean Cleanup

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of plastic in the oceans, and it sits between California and Hawaii. In 2018, it was three times the size of France and its total amount is 80,000 tonnes. 2 Engineers from the Netherlands, led by a 24-year-old Dutch inventor called Boyan Slat, have launched an ocean cleanup system called ‘System 001’. It is an enormous, 600m long, floating, rubbish-collector, which collects plastic in a 3m deep skirt. A garbage truck ship will collect the plastic every few months. Using computer simulations and scale models, the group tested and trialled the system with hopes for it to be trialled in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Slat has been both praised and criticised for his invention but, currently, it is a case of wait and see. No one really knows what’s going to happen. “The moment I am looking forward most to is when we are taking the first plastic back and it’s proven technology,” Slat has said.

Roads made from plastic?

Another idea to come from the Netherlands is a project called PlasticRoad. It is a stretch of bike path in the Dutch city of Zwolle made of recycled plastic - and it is the first of its kind. It is a way of re-using plastic bottles, cups and packaging instead of burning it or putting it in landfill. The road uses 70 per cent recycled plastic, but subsequent versions plan to use 100 per cent recycled plastic. The company says that it is even more durable than asphalt, takes less time to install and requires less heavy equipment, making the carbon footprint smaller, too. The first road in Zwolle is 30m long and contains the recycled plastic equivalent of over 218,000 plastic cups or 500,000 plastic bottle caps. In November 2018, a second plastic road was built in Overijssel. 3

Seaweed instead of plastic

The fight against plastic has led engineers and designers to search for other materials that could be used for packaging foodstuffs. Bioplastics are made from renewable biomass, usually vegetable fats and oils, cassava starch, woodchips or food waste. Seaweed, however, is the solution used by Indonesian start-up called Evoware. The company works with local seaweed farmers to create sandwich and burger wraps, sachets for flavouring and coffee, and soap packaging, all made out of seaweed. It can be dissolved in hot water or, to reduce waste to zero, the packaging is also edible. Sustainable and nutritious.


Social plastic

The biggest problem plastic causes is its effect on ocean life. By 2050, by some estimates, there could be more pieces of plastic than fish in the sea. One idea to stop plastic getting there in the first place is a little more abstract. The Plastic Bank is a social enterprise which pays an above-market rate for plastic waste. People who collect plastic can trade it in for money, items (fuel, cook stoves) or services, such as school fees. The project incentivises people to collect ocean-bound plastic before it enters the waterways while fighting poverty, giving people an income, cleaning up the streets, and reducing the amount of waste that goes into the oceans. The aim of Plastic Bank is to make plastic too valuable to throw away and turn it into a currency. The company then sells the plastic on to corporate clients, who pay around three times more than plastic normally costs. It operates in multiple regions including Haiti, Brazil and Philippines.

This article was originally published in 2018.

Featured image © Steve De Neef | Getty

1. Annual plastic in oceans 2. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch 3. Second plastic road built


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10 Scientific Solutions to Plastic Pollution

10 Scientific Solutions to Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is leaving behind impacts for generations to come. If our current rate of pollution continues, experts predict that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. It is clear that we need solutions to rectify this pressing issue. Thanks to innovation and research, scientists have been able to pioneer ground-breaking technology to help collect and prevent plastic pollution. Here are 10 scientific solutions to plastic pollution.  

Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues the world faces today. As most of the plastics that we use don’t break down and dissolve easily, it is slowly filling up our oceans, which will take centuries to disintegrate, posing tremendous issues for aquatic life, human health and the marine ecosystem. Studies have estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.  

The world’s rivers, oceans and seas have been acting as convenient transport vectors as well as dumping sites for plastic produced by human activity. This pollution comes at a huge cost, from the clean-up and repair efforts and loss of revenue for tourism and the societal price of polluted and degraded environments. 

Around 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide annually, and only half of this can be recycled. Some believe the solution to global plastic pollution is to simply reduce the amount of  plastic that is being used. However, some issues arise with this sweeping assumption. Firstly, it does not tackle the issue of plastic that is already present in the ocean; and secondly, current policies have not been effective against plastic production as studies have shown that production is in fact increasing , and is projected to keep climbing. 

But all hope is not lost, and it is certainly not too late. While there are ways in which individuals can reduce their use of plastic in their daily activity, science and technology have allowed us to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible. Collective action is imperative. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was introduced to prevent further damage caused to Earth’s ozone layer. Over a period of time, humanity was able to phase out over 98% of the harmful substances that were causing the damage, preventing approximately 2 million cases of skin cancer as a result. If we were able to come together as we did in 1987, we can collectively tackle the plastic pollution problem.

1. The Ocean Clean-up

The Ocean Clean-up is an excellent example of collective action. Inspired by a scuba diving trip in Greece, Dutch CEO Boyan Slat created the organisation consisting of a large team of people and technology designed to effectively collect plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch . Using what is called the System 001 , which consists of 600m-long floating structures intended to contain marine debris and designed to collect microplastics , one of the problematic forms of plastic and can be dangerous to both marine animals and humans if ingested, the system relies on wind and ocean currents to collect the plastic. Upon collection,  the plastic waste is transported by a vessel back to land, to be then recycled. 

Currently located in the garbage patch between Hawaii and California, the aim of The Ocean Clean-up is to deploy their system to the four other garbage patches located over the world, and hopefully clean up 50% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years . 

ocean plastic, Joerg Blessing, scientific solutions to plastic pollution

2. NASA Satellite Technology

Concentrations of ocean plastic can now be detected by NASA satellite technology that was created in 2016. This ground-breaking research method can be fundamental in tracking and managing ocean plastic debris and one of many crucial scientific solutions to plastic pollution. NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, also known as CYGNSS, was originally created to predict hurricanes by monitoring tropical wind speed over the ocean. Scientists discovered that this technology can detect the concentration of microplastic in the water by measuring the surface of the water. It will also provide a huge contribution to further research on the effects of microplastic on the ecosystem, help non-profit and private organisations clean up the sea, and protect aquatic life. 

3. The Plastic-eating Enzyme 

One of the most important scientific solutions to plastic pollution that have emerged is the plastic-eating enzyme. In Japan 2016, a scientist discovered a plastic-eating enzyme that was capable of breaking down Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the most commonly used type of plastic. This enzyme, known as Ideonella Sakaiensis 201-F6 , is a bacteria that can digest plastic by secreting an enzyme called PETase , and ingesting the carbon in PET to be used as a food source. Though the breakdown process remains to be relatively slow, scientists have been working to speed it up. An international team of scientists have been able to modify the molecular composition of the enzyme , and tweak it to consume PET 20% faster than it originally did. 

You might also like: A French Start-Up is Using Enzyme to Breakdown and Recycle PET Plastic

4. Plastic-eating Mushrooms

A darkly pigmented species of fungus, known as Aspergillus Tubingensis, has been found to contain agents that can degrade polyurethane (PU). Samantha Jenkins , lead biotech engineer for bio-manufacturing firm Biohm was studying different types of fungus in a research project, when she came across the plastic-eating fungus and found the fungus had eaten its way through the plastic sponge that was used to seal it. Jenkins is in the process of testing the fungus on PET and PU plastic and discovered the fungus to populate as it consumes more plastic, potentially creating a new source of biomaterial “for food, or feed stocks for animals, or antibiotics”. 

5. Magnetic Coils

Scientists have created a magnetic coil that is able to target microplastics in the ocean. This experimental nanotechnology is able to break down microplastic in the water without causing any harm to marine life. Thinner than a human hair, these coils resemble bed springs under a microscope, and are coated in nitrogen and a magnetic metal called manganese. When they react with oxygen molecules, they attack plastic and can help to break it down. Xiaoguang Duan, a co-author of this study found that nano-coils have a 30% to 50% reduction rate in microplastics over a period of eight hours in early experiments. 

You might also like: Solution for Plastic Pollution: 6 Policies and Innovations Tackling Plastics

6. Converting to Fuel

Australian company Licella Holdings has developed a new patented technology, known as the Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor (Cat-HTR), that can convert unrecyclable plastic into oil, it has been able to melt plastic and convert it into liquid fuel. Through a process similar to a commercial-sized pressure-cooker, it reduces plastic to its component parts, producing a range of materials including oils, waxes and plastics that can be turned into other plastic products or fuels.

What makes this technology so unique is its versatile nature. No plastic is a match for this device. The Cat-HTR chemically recycles mixed plastics without the need to separate the different plastic types. This includes end-of-life plastic that would otherwise be sent to landfills, incineration or end up in our oceans. It allows plastic waste to be recycled over and over again and on a commercial scale, and could convert 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste annually. However, critics have labelled the technology as an environmental trade-off as the process may produce further carbon emissions. 

scientific solutions to plastic pollution, plastic roads

Photo by PlasticRoad via Facebook .

7. Converting to Roads

One of the many scientific solutions to plastic pollution is to convert waste into roads . A project known as PlasticRoad , created a bike path in the Dutch city of Zwolle and a road in Overjissel in 2018 using 70% recycled plastic. The plan is to increase this to 100%. The project has been proven successful as plastic is more durable than asphalt and requires less heavy equipment and time to install, which makes its carbon footprint smaller. PlasticRoad intends to carry on designing, creating and supplying these sustainable, climate-proof and circular roads, made from municipal plastic waste and “with the smallest possible negative impact on our planet and natural resources.” 

8. Substitute with Seaweed

One of the most significant scientific solutions to plastic pollution to emerge in recent years is bioplastic . A plastic alternative comprised of materials  produced from renewable biomass sources. Indonesian start-up company Evoware has been researching ways of converting seaweed into a bioplastic . They work with local seaweed farmers to create a range of different types of packaging such as sandwich wraps, burger wraps, sachets for spices, and soap, which can be dissolved in hot water, and in some cases, edible. Indonesia produces 10 million tonnes of seaweed each year and could reach up to 19 million tonnes by 2020, which could help supply Evoware’s expanding efforts.  

Despite the innovative creativity behind such a thoughtful invention, these seaweed-based substitutes are not without its challenges. For example, Evoware’s edible seaweed-based Ello Jello cone can be up to five times more expensive than ordinary crepe cones. Additionally, it still uses wrappings of plastic and paper to preserve its texture. 

9. Social Plastic Policies

A social enterprise known as Plastic Bank is paying above-market rates for plastic waste. They act as a convenience store for the world’s poor communities , and accept plastic waste as a form of currency. Their recycling ecosystem is sustained through the sale and use of what they call “Social Plastic®”. This encourages people to collect ocean-bound plastic before it enters the waterways, and it can be traded for social benefits, including money, food and other services (such as school fees). Plastic Bank aims to make plastic too valuable to throw away. Upon collection, plastic waste will then be sold to corporations, who will pay around three times more than what plastics normally cost.

10. Nicholas Institute’s Plastic Technology Inventory 

A study released by the Nicholas Institute addressed the gap between knowledge for technology to tackle plastic pollution, and created a comprehensive inventory of 52 technologies currently being used or in development to prevent the leakage of plastic pollution or collect existing plastic pollution . The study concluded that both the prevention of plastic from entering waterways and plastic collection are matters of urgency, highlighting the importance of ensuring the care of aquatic systems and human health. 

Two examples from this list include Plastic Fischer Trash Boom and Hoola One . The former was created in Germany in 2019, whose technology aims to collect microplastics from the water, while Hoola One was a vacuum created in Canada in 2019, intended to extract microplastics and macroplastics from marine environments. 

You might also like: We Need Sustainable Food Packaging Now. Here’s Why.

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Marine litter. Photo: BoEide

Plastic permeates just about every aspect of our lives. And because plastic is everywhere, plastic pollution is also everywhere. Eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans each year, and it’s estimated that by 2050, the amount of plastic in the ocean will weigh more than all the fish. Plastic ends up inside animals, too; a sperm whale that recently washed up in Spain had 64 pounds of plastic waste in its gut. Plastic is also polluting land, especially on farms where sewage sludge is used for fertilizer. Scientists found Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical component in the plastic of some water bottles and the lining of tin cans, in the cord blood of nine out of 10 infants and in the urine of 95 percent of the adult Americans they tested. Tiny bits of microplastic and plastic fibers—smaller than the width of a human hair—have been found in honey, sugar, beer, processed foods, shellfish, salt, bottled water and tap water. Microplastics even contaminate Arctic ice in concentrations greater than those of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch —about 12,000 particles per liter of ice.

Last summer, Joaquim Goes, a research professor at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and his team surveyed microplastics in the Hudson and East Rivers around New York City with the help of Riverkeeper . They discovered microplastics of all shapes and sizes in the water. The most polluted area was around Newtown Creek, where they could see waste drifting into the creek from the nearby sewage treatment plant.

Goes and his team sampling in the Hudson.

“Most of our sewage treatment plants do not have the capacity to filter out these micron-sized particles of plastic,” said Goes. “Because they get through the filtration system, they end up in the aquatic systems, and act like vectors for the transport of organic compounds [such as drugs and pesticides in the wastewater that ends up in sewage treatment plants]. When fish and shellfish take them up, you have a way by which microplastics get into food chain.”

What scientists do not know, however, is what effects plastic and the chemicals within plastic might have on humans and other living things.

The plastic pollution problem can feel overwhelming, but there are actions we can all take to make a difference.

Reduce your own plastic use

Don’t use single-use plastics.

Photo: Kevin Krejci

This category includes plastic bags, straws, dry cleaning bags, water bottles, take out food containers, and coffee cups. Eight of the ten most common items in ocean trash are single-use food-related items, so whenever possible, bring your own reusable utensils and containers. For more suggestions, see 100 Steps to a Plastic-Free Life .

Be a conscientious consumer  when you shop

Plastic that is not recycled usually ends up in a landfill.   Photo: Samuel Mann

Recycle, donate, repair

Recycling plastic bottles Photo: Lisa

Put pressure on offenders and praise those who are reducing plastic use

If a company or manufacturer uses excessive plastic packaging, let it know. Write a letter or send a tweet. If you get no response, post it on social media. Conversely, praise businesses that are reducing their use of plastic by tagging the business and posting photos on social media. Tag @upstreampolicy , too, and Upstream, an organization fighting plastic pollution by advancing policies and corporate responsibility, will repost it.

Take a pledge to reduce your plastic use

Participate in cleanup efforts

Plastic washed ashore in Hawaii Photo: Susan White/USFWS

Become an adventure scientist to help with research

Help gather data for the Worldwide Microplastics Initiative , which trains volunteers to collect marine and fresh water samples for scientists studying microplastics.

Organize a plastic pollution event

Support organizations that are fighting plastic pollution.

Get politically active

Laws and social movements are the most effective means of changing consumer behavior on a large scale, so get involved with some of these issues.

Photo: Chris Guy

Plastic bag ban laws

Countries around the world are phasing out the thin plastic bags given out in stores. Bangladesh, Rwanda, China, Taiwan, Macedonia, Gambia, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Tanzania and Sri Lanka and other countries have totally banned them. Many European Union countries impose a fee on plastic bags. And while there is no national ban or fee on bags in the U.S., California, American Samoa and Puerto Rico have banned plastic bags; more than 200 counties and municipalities have also banned bags or imposed fees for using them.

Attorney Jennie Romer founded PlasticBagLaws.org as a resource for cities, states and communities that want to institute plastic bag bans. Romer has found that hybrid bans are the most effective—those that ban thin plastic carryout bags and also impose a charge for paper or any other bags. She explained that with a straight bag ban that only outlaws the carryout plastic bag, consumers often switch to paper bags or thicker plastic bags that qualify as reusable. Even a small bag fee, however, dramatically changes consumer behavior and has resulted in an overall drop in bag consumption. For example, in San Jose, the hybrid ban model with a 10-cent charge for paper bags led to an increase in reusable bag use from 4 percent to 62 percent.

In April, Governor Cuomo proposed a plastic bag ban at all New York stores, but without a fee on paper or other bags. If approved, it would go into effect January 2019.

To propose a plastic bag ban in your community, check out Romer’s primer  on implementing plastic bag laws.

Expanded polystyrene bans

Some U.S. towns and cities have successfully banned non-recyclable and non-biodegradable expanded polystyrene (EPS), better known as Styrofoam, used in foodware and packaging. California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Washington and Washington D.C. have ordinances banning EPS. As of the beginning of 2017, there were 148 local ordinances against EPS in the U.S., with most found in California. Here is a guide for reducing EPS in your community.

Bottled water bans

Photo: Juan Pablo Calderon

Every year, 38 billion water bottles end up in U.S. landfills. Concord, Massachusetts banned the sale of bottled water in 2013 . San Francisco has recently banned the sale of bottled water on municipal property and prohibited government agencies from buying it.

The Ban the Bottle campaign  has suggestions for starting a bottled water ban in your community.

Plastic straw bans

500 million straws are used each day in the U.S. Malibu, Miami Beach, San Luis Obispo, Fort Myers and numerous restaurants have stopped giving out straws unless customers specifically request them. As a result of the Strawless in Seattle campaign, Seattle too will ban straws in July, which could reduce straw use by a million a month. Inspired by Seattle, residents of Santa Fe are starting a Strawless Santa Fe campaign.

Surfrider’s Straws Suck campaign encourages consumers to identify businesses that use straws by taking a photo of the plastic item and posting it to Twitter or Instagram with @SurfriderVan and hashtag #StrawsSuck or #RiseAbovePlastics.

Plastic-free restaurants

Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants campaign  helps restaurants reduce their plastic consumption. Encourage your local restaurants to sign up.

Extended producer responsibility

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation requires manufacturers to be responsible for the entire life cycle of their product, which means that discarded products must be taken back, recycled or reused to make new products. Producers themselves usually do not take back the products, however, but rather contract with third parties to deal with them.

Currently, U.S. taxpayers pay for local governments to deal with the collecting, recycling, and cleanup of plastic pollution. EPR would require manufacturers to pay for the amount of packaging they produce. These funds would then go to other entities to collect and recycle the items. This would help support and expand plastic recycling, and also encourage manufacturers to design more sustainable products.

All European Union members have some form of EPR legislation on packaging, as do Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. In the U.S., there are no state or federal EPR laws for packaging, though there are some state and municipal EPR laws for other product categories. Upstream provides information about EPR legislation.

The organization is also developing a Global Plastic Reduction Toolkit that will be a resource for proposing, passing and implementing legislation to regulate or restrict single-use plastics, highlighting successful examples in cities, states, and countries around the world.

Leading the change

British prime minister Theresa May has proposed a ban on all single-use plastic items in the U.K., including straws and cotton swabs, by early 2019. Iceland Foods, a British supermarket chain specializing in frozen foods, has promised to do away with plastic packaging for its own brand by the end of 2023, and instead use recyclable paper or pulp packaging.

Bamboo toothbrushes in cardboard packaging Photo:: Anna Gregory

Ekoplaza, a Dutch supermarket chain, has created the first plastic-free supermarket aisle with 700 items that use no plastic packaging. The products carry the Plastic Free Mark, a new label that enables consumers to more easily choose plastic-free products. The products will be packaged in compostable bio-materials, cardboard, glass and metal.

A Scottish company called MacRebur is testing a road made from recycled plastic, which it claims is stronger and more durable than asphalt roads. The company maintains the road can also boost fuel economy because there is less tire resistance.

On the promising research front, the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. along with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory have (accidentally) engineered an enzyme  that can “eat” polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used in water bottles. The discovery could make it possible to recycle much more plastic waste.

Stay Positive!

If you are feeling discouraged by the scale of the plastic pollution problem, Jennie Romer has some advice. “Don’t beat yourself up too much or get overwhelmed,” she said. “Plastics are part of life. But figure out where you can cut plastic out of your life and find others who are also interested in advocacy to build a coalition. The issue can be taken on at the grassroots level.”

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Check out National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic campaign: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/planetorplastic/

Anna Pfau

I have heard of some colleges and universities going straw free. Since Columbia is such a well known and influential university I believe that going straw free would not only help reduce Columbia’s plastic waste but inspire other schools in the country to help reduce their plastic waste.

Rise Prue

So happy to hear you all are on the Plastic campaign. I hope you all are working on the biggest plastic problem we face in the country. Disposal Diapers and Baby wipes. I am interested in what progress you have made on banning these.

Stella Sutkiewicz

Question… can I reference this page and quote some of the tips? With FULL CREDIT, of course. I’m with the environmental group Media on Taiji and we are currently creating flyers to present through our members all over the world. I’ll be sending you a separate email. We are a fully accredited non-profit based in Hull, England. Our founder is Tracey Ozdemir, an environmental activist and children’s book author.

Our primary focus is the end of whale and dolphin slaughter and slavery around the world but alongside that goal, we are working toward a better planet for all of us. Our next planned flyers are about plastic pollution and the price animals, especially highly intelligent and social ones, pay for captivity.

Thank you! Stella Sutkiewicz, American East Coast Coordinator

Sarah Fecht

Thanks for your interest. Our general policy is that you can excerpt up 100 words from our article, as long as you credit the author and the Earth Institute, and provide a link back to our blog where possible.

Best, Sarah Content Manager for State of the Planet


do you know that excessive use of plastic can cause diabetes mellitus? http://news.unair.ac.id/en/2019/07/11/excessive-use-of-plastic-is-linked-to-increased-risk-of-diabetes-mellitus/ anyway, nice article. thanks for sharing! let’s reduce the use of plastic to protect our earth and our health!

Rowena Benavides

Yes, plastics is such a horrible material, when used improperly and discarded anywhere. It is our lifestyle that intensifies the problem, we enter into an age of throw away culture, where we want almost everything to be instant and thrown immediately. As if everything is disposable. hence, we must help educate our fellows to become more responsible in using the plastic material.

Lija Wills

Thank you for this excellent article. It describes what we need to do clearly and concisely.


If I were to make personal 2021 material use resolutions, what would you suggest beyond these 8 steps? 1) Use metal tableware instead of disposable plastic at picnics and parties. 2) Use cheap but washable plates rather than plastic disposables. 3) Refill my plastic water bottles at least once or twice with tap water. 4) Never buy polystyrene (P6) or polycarbonate (P7) cups. 5) Use reuseable plastic grocery bags. 6) Segregate metal containers from my waste stream and take to a scrap yard. 7) Avoid balloons, straws, plastic coffee stirrers, and plastic stick cotton swabs. 8) Install water filtration tap on sink if local water is distasteful.

Andrew Gibbs

I am a civil engineer and I am looking into the construction industry as my specialty using geosynthetic Technology. I believe that it has a more positive impact on the community and high quality innovation. It is so nice to see articles like this to enhance my skills. Here is where I am working right now.<a href=”HDPE Liner Installation CQA”> https://geoq.com.au/services/geosynthetic-liner-repairs/</a&gt ;

Jessica Griner

Recently, I have been learning about plastic pollution in my ELA class. I have learned of how big of a deal this is but I just can’t figure out what to do. My teachers all say to use less plastic and to recycle but that won’t be much help at all. Every day, there is million tons of plastic going into our beautiful oceans. Please let me know if you have any good ideas!


What can we do at the END of the plastic life cycle?


I have seriously been thinking about peacefully protesting against plastic factories and greenhouse gases and everything that ruins our environment


Guys, I have a confession… I eat plastic. Fish are eating plastic and we are consuming it – tiny micro plastics end up in our system because of the amount of plastic that fish end up eating and it ends up in the food chain. We must end this.

Dennis Mc Endree

How do we stop plastic, we vote by the way we consume use glass, buy bulk, whole foods, learn how to cook and slow down the most important thing in life is our health without it nothing else has no meaning.

Why It’s Time to Move Beyond Plastic — And 9 Ways You Can Help

how to solve the problem of plastic

See why it’s time to move beyond plastic & how you can help.

It seems like plastic is almost everywhere. But it turns out to be hazardous to your health and your planet. Get the facts, and find out how you can take action to solve the plastic problem and cut back on your use of single-use plastics.

From bags to food containers to car parts, plastic is a significant part of our day-to-day lives. Global production of plastic has been nearly doubling every decade. But experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of plastic on the environment — and on human health .

How harmful is plastic? And what about plastic bans? Do they work? Or are there better ways to tackle plastic pollution?

And what can you do as an individual to protect yourself from harm and to help solve the plastic problem?

What Is Plastic?

There are seven main types of plastic , each used for different purposes. They’re labeled with numbered codes, helping you determine which kind of plastic you’re dealing with and if you can recycle it.

Though the first plastics were once natural products (used as far back as 3,500 years ago), almost all plastics today are man-made and derived from fossil fuels, including crude oil and natural gas.

Scientists have also created new forms of plastics made from renewable materials — known as biopolymers or bioplastics.

Bioplastics: Plastics Made from Plants and Other Natural Materials

Bioplastics are made from natural sources, including vegetable fats/oils, corn starch, straw, wood chips, and even food waste.

While bioplastics are typically considered more environmentally-friendly than traditional plastics, they aren’t a catch-all solution . Many still end up in landfills, and as more come on the market, there are issues with land use, proper disposal, and toxicity.

Researchers are currently working on bioplastics that are compostable, degradable in water (should they end up in the ocean), and non-toxic. Though promising solutions are in development (such as bioplastic straws made from avocado and bioplastic coffee cups made from potato starch, corn starch, and cellulose — the main component of plant cell walls), they aren’t yet widely available.

How Plastic Became Part of Everyday Life

Before synthetic plastics took over, products were usually packaged with natural materials, such as wood, glass, metal, or paper.

After World War II, plastic became a popular material for everything from nylons to packaging to food wrap.

Throwaway plastic was convenient, cheap, and human-made, and there was a seemingly endless supply.

Unfortunately, few people were thinking of the long-term consequences of creating so much trash, or how plastic might affect the human body.

And Now, Plastic Is More Popular Than Ever

World production of plastic has increased exponentially over the decades.

Here are some striking facts about the rise in plastic use — and subsequent waste:

How Does Plastic Harm Human Health?

Research has found that many chemicals used in plastic production can cause health problems for humans.

Many plastics, for example, contain a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA.

When BPA is used in food or beverage containers, not all of the chemical gets sealed into the product. Some of it leaches out — especially when exposed to heat or sunlight. The primary source of human exposure to BPA is through packaged foods and drinks.

BPA is a known hormone disruptor and strongly linked to a number of diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma , cancer , infertility, low sperm count, liver problems, and ADHD .

What About BPA-Free Plastics?

As news started coming out about the dangers of BPA, many manufacturers began phasing this nasty chemical out of their products. At first, that seemed like a good thing.

But when the National Institutes of Health funded research on BPA-free plastics, researchers found that “almost all” commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens — even when the plastics weren’t exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave oven, the steam of a dishwasher, or the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

According to this NIH-funded study, some BPA-free plastic products released synthetic estrogens that were even more potent than BPA.

The bottom line : BPA plastics are dangerous to your health. And it seems likely that most BPA-free plastics offer little, if any, improvement.

Another Plastic Problem: Some Humans Are Eating It

plastic soup

Another significant health issue involves the direct ingestion of plastic by consumers, thanks to the quantity of plastic now adrift in the ocean.

Fish and other invertebrates are eating microplastics (broken down pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long) by the ton.

Smaller fish, like sardines, eat this plastic, and then they’re eaten by larger fish. When fish become seafood, the tiny bits of plastic (and associated toxins) make their way into the mouths and bodies of consumers.

This problem has led some scientists to start calling the ocean a “plastic soup.”

A 2015 study published in the journal IOPScience estimated that in 2014, the number of microplastics in the ocean ranged from 15 to 51 trillion pieces , weighing between 93,000 and 236,000 metric tons.

Plastic Bans Are Happening Around the World

As awareness about the many problems with plastic has spread, bans on single-use plastics are being put into place by companies, cities, and even whole countries.

Two products have been the focus of most of these bans: plastic bags and plastic straws.

Plastic Bag Bans Are Spreading

Plastic bags were the first to face widespread criticism.

In 2007, San Francisco banned single-use plastic bags. Then in 2016, the entire state of California followed suit. By 2024, Colorado will have their plastic bag (and foam container) ban in place.

Boston , Portland , New York , and Seattle have also banned single-use plastic bags. And many cities, including   Chicago  and Washington, DC , have enacted fees for use of recycled paper or plastic bags. 

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, some cities have temporarily suspended their plastic bag bans or fees. To check the status of plastic bags in your city, visit Bag the Ban’s plastic bag legislation map or check your city government’s website.

Other countries have also begun to ban plastics, and some impose stiff fines or penalties. 

For example:

In total, more than 60 countries have enacted plastic bans and/or fees in order to cut down on plastic waste, and many more are likely to follow soon.

Anti-Straw Sentiment Is Heating Up

Straws are the latest plastic product to receive negative attention.

The focus on straws largely began with a viral video in which a marine biologist removed a straw from a sea turtle’s nose. You can watch the video here . ( Warning: Video contains adult language. )

Because straws are so lightweight, they frequently get sorted out during the recycling process and end up in waterways.

In response to growing public outcry, some companies are starting to willingly cut back or eliminate single-use plastics, particularly straws:

Plastic Bags and Straws: Are These Single-Use Plastic Bans Helping?

how to solve the problem of plastic

In recent years, much of the outcry around plastic has focused on single-use bags and straws, without as much focus on other plastic items like packaging materials and food containers.

Now, you might ask, are these really such a big issue? Can banning plastic bags and straws really help solve the waste problem?

After all, straws only make up an estimated less than 10% of the nine million tons of plastic pollution that gets into the world’s oceans annually.

But the truth is, every bit counts. And many experts argue that banning bags and straws help consumers start small when it comes to cutting back. So by focusing on eliminating these items, we can start to chip away at the larger issue of single-use plastics.

The reality is that while straw bans won’t nearly solve the whole problem, they’ll make a dent in it, while also helping educate billions of consumers.

Which brings us back to you and me.

As it turns out, we can do a lot.

9 Ways You Can Help Solve the Plastic Problem

Here are some ideas for helping solve the plastic problem by cutting back on single-use plastic:

#1 – Keep Reusable Shopping Bags in Your Car, and Use Less Single-Use Plastic

If you live in a place where grocery stores still give out plastic bags, it’s easy to fall back into using them — or to opt for paper, which has its own environmental problems.

To make it easier, keep a few reusable bags in your car so they’ll always be handy when you need to stock your fridge. The next time you’re asked, “Paper or plastic?,” you can say: “Neither! I brought my own bags.”

#2 – Reuse Your “Disposable” Bags

Whenever you do end up with plastic or paper bags, reuse them as much as possible . Take them to the store, collect recycling items in paper, or use old plastic bags for kitty litter or to line your trash bins.

In our home, if they aren’t too soiled, we rinse and air-dry our plastic, produce bags so we can reuse them when we go back to the store.

#3 – Carry Your Water Bottle Everywhere

Drinking water is wonderful, but it produces a lot of waste if you’re opting for bottled water .

Here’s a better option: Buy your own glass or stainless steel water bottle and bring it with you everywhere you go.

If you have a home filter (a lot of Food Revolution Network members love the AquaTru ) you can bring clean water with you whenever you go out.

#4 – Use Glass Jars for Leftovers and Storage

Instead of plastic packaging, use glass jars and other containers to store your food.

If you start reusing glass jars from sauces and other store-bought items, you’ll have a big collection of containers in no time.

#5 – Buy in Bulk When You Can

Many stores have significant bulk buying departments, where you can stock up on flour, legumes, nuts, seeds, seasonings, dried fruit, and all kinds of other ingredients — often for a sizable discount.

Bring glass jars (pre-weighed so you don’t have to pay for the glass at checkout) or reused plastic bags from home and get exactly as much as you need.

#6 – Snag Some Stainless Steel Straws or Opt Out of Straws Altogether

Plastic straws are on the way out. If you’re a fan of drinking beverages through a straw (or if you need to drink through a straw for health reasons), you can buy some stainless steel ones to carry with you. A pack of four could last you a lifetime — and they come with a special brush for cleaning.

#7 – Skip the Fast Food

Eating fast food or takeout means creating a lot of waste. And it’s usually bad for you , too. Opt for cooking your own healthy food at home, instead. When you do decide to eat out, bring along a reusable container for leftovers.

#8 – Bring Your Own Utensils

Instead of using plastic cutlery when you do eat out (or for your homemade lunch at work), buy a portable bamboo or stainless steel utensil kit.

#9 – Read SLO Active’s Plastic Pollution Guide

SLO active, a lifestyle brand that focuses on oceanwear and activism, created an extensive guide to plastic pollution  in conjunction with marine biology experts. The guide shows the true impact of plastics on our oceans and sea life. Plus, it presents ideas for reducing plastic waste when you’re out and about, or at home, and ways you can help solve the plastic problem, right now.

It’s Time To Move Beyond Plastic

glass tupperware

Historians may one day look back at our era as the time of plastics. From building materials to food storage, and from packaging to clothing, plastic has become an almost ubiquitous part of modern life. And there’s no doubt that in some cases, it can be very useful.

But disposable plastic is creating a nightmare for the planet. And storing food and water in plastic can wreak havoc on your health.

We now have the knowledge, and the resources, to move beyond disposable and food storage plastic in our everyday lives.

Our family used to love plastic food-storage containers, but recently we bit the bullet and threw out all but a few backup plastic containers. We ordered glass and stainless-steel ones, and I’m glad we did.

Now, we store most of our food in glass containers that come with clear snap-on plastic lids. For traveling, I prefer airtight, stainless-steel containers with snap-on lids that have a silicone seal (like the kind made by Onyx ) because they’re lighter and more break-proof than glass. But unless you’re Superman and have X-ray vision, you can’t see through these, which is why I prefer glass at home because it helps to keep the fridge organized so you can see your food.

The hardest place for us to ditch plastic is in the freezer. We still use plastic bags for freezing berries and some other foods — although we are experimenting with using glass and snap-on plastic lids when we freeze our own, and so far that is promising.

Whatever systems and methods work for you, what matters most is that you take action. Because the future of your health, and your world, will be impacted by the choices you make today.

Tell us in the comments:

Do you still have questions about plastic, how are you cutting back on your plastic use, what alternatives to plastic are working for you.

Did you know? It's actually very simple to reduce your use of plastic!

Ocean Robbins

CEO, Food Revolution Network

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Resource Library | Lesson : 6 hrs 40 mins

Resource library lesson : 6 hrs 40 mins, the plastic problem.

Students draw from rich resources to learn about the history of plastic use, why they are so widespread, and why their use has become a social, economic, and geographic problem. They use the “Sea to Source: Ganges” river expedition to learn about ways that people are trying to solve the problems plastic creates. This lesson is part of the Toward a Plastic-Responsible Future unit.

Conservation, Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History

5 Activities


Activity 1: Introducing the Plastic Problem

<p>Plastic is a worldwide problem. Much of it fills this 10-hectare landfill in Rishikesh, India.</p>

Students inventory their classroom to begin to learn about the prevalence of plastic. They consider their own regular interactions with plastic and how the utility and durability of plastic has contributed to its widespread use.

1. Activate students’ knowledge of plastic s in their daily lives.

2. Have students inventory the plastic used in their classroom.

3. Have students create a bar graph to visualize the data gathered by the teams.

4. Facilitate students’ analysis of the data with a debrief discussion.

 5.  Introduce students to the problem of plastic pollution and their project.

  6. Introduce students to the project.

  7. Have students complete the exit ticket.

Informal Assessment

Identify the plastic items in the room and accurately represent the data on the class graph. Based on the analysis in the debrief discussion, describe implications for the class’s plastic use in their exit ticket.

Extending the Learning

Students keep a “Plastics Use” journal for a week, tracking every bit of plastic they use, noting whether and how they discard that plastic. Then, students research where each type of plastic goes in their community (e.g., to the landfill, recycling center, into the environment as pollution).

Activity 2: Our Plastic History

<p>Plastic was first sold as an easy-to-use, disposable product. That attitude can be seen in this photograph showing people&nbsp;the benefits of disposable dishes.</p>

Students learn about the history and use of a variety of plastics, including when and why we started using them. They use a variety of sources, including videos and texts, to understand how plastics became so common in society over time, and learn about their effects on the environment.

2. Show students a video about the history of plastic use in our culture.

3. Show students a short video to learn about microplastics.

4. Have students read to learn about two plastic products that are being banned in some places.

5. Lead a brief wrap-up brainstorm discussion about alternatives to different types of plastics.

Students create timelines to demonstrates their understanding of the causes and effects of the development and use of particular plastic items over time.

Activity 3: Plastic in the Ganges River

<p>Plastic pollution can hugely damage communities. Here, a&nbsp;man cleans garbage on the banks of the&nbsp;Ganges in Kolkata, India.</p>

Students use the "Sea to Source: Ganges" river expedition on the Ganges River as a case study to learn about the impacts of plastic pollution on communities. After learning about one method of plastic data collection, they begin to plan their own research on plastic in their community.

2. Introduce students to the National Geographic “Sea to Source: Ganges” river expedition.

  3. Have students read to learn about a data collection method used in this expedition.

4. Have students reflect on their learning.

5. Lead students in a wrap-up discussion to think about how places might be affected differently by plastic waste.

Students can find a local waterway and collect data about the plastic they find, then share with the class.

Activity 4: Geographies of Inequality

<p>Plastic pollution has&nbsp;different impacts on people based on their socioeconomic level. Here, plastic waste is shown washing back and forth between the sea and the beach during a storm in&nbsp;Naples, Italy.</p>

Students use a variety of resources to learn about the relationship between socioeconomic differences and the impacts of plastic pollution. Students consider the environmental impact of plastic objects by listening to a podcast and reading an article.

  2. Play segments of an NPR podcast to explain the environmental impact of single-use plastic sachets.

3. Have students read an article to learn about shipping plastic waste overseas.

4. Engage students in an analysis of data to connect global income inequality with plastic waste management .

Use the classroom discussions to informally assess students’ explanations and analyses of cultural and economic differences in different parts of the world, and their relationship with plastic waste. Complete an exit ticket to explain how geographic inequality is related to plastic waste management.

Students explore their town or city and record inequalities as they relate to plastic waste, then share their observations with the class.

Activity 5: In the Water, Air, and Soil

<p>Evidence of plastic waste is widespread in countless bodies of water, as well as in the air, and&nbsp;soil.</p>

In their campaign groups, students use text and images to learn about the impacts of plastic waste as it ends up in bodies of water, in the air, and in soil. Students develop an evidence-based statement of the problem of plastic pollution to synthesize their learning from this lesson.

2. Orient students to the goal of the policy proposal project.

3. Have students read to learn about different impacts of plastic pollution on the environment.

4. Assign students the task of writing their problem statement for the policy proposal.

Synthesize the content learned in this lesson, The Plastic Problem , to write their problem statement about plastic pollution. Use the rubric and the checklist to guide the writing of the statement.

Subjects & Disciplines

Students will:

Teaching Approach

Teaching Methods

Skills Summary

This lesson targets the following skills:

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

What you’ll need, resources provided.

The resources are also available at the top of the page.

Required Technology

Physical Space

Students need access to the chalk or whiteboard, or a wall, to post their sticky notes and view all of the sticky notes from the class.

Student pairs will need to have one computer per pair for the reading part of this activity, or articles will need to be printed in advance.

Accessibility Notes

Students with mobility issues will need to be able to access a unit of the classroom clear of obstacles to do the inventory exercise.

Other Notes

This activity would be best taught during one block period or taught over two days.

Background Information

Plastic is a practical choice for production in many fields, such as medicine, manufacturing, and technology. The problem with plastic is that it does not break down like materials found in nature. As we continue to use new plastics on a regular basis, we contribute to a growing problem of plastic pollution as it accumulates in the waste stream. One place that is severely impacted by plastic waste is the Ganges River that runs from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Densely populated, poverty impacted countries such as India lack the waste management systems needed to dispose of plastic waste properly. A team of explorers from National Geographic has been collecting plastic waste data on the Ganges in an effort to reduce the problem of plastic pollution.

This lesson is part of the unit Toward a Plastic-Responsible Future .

Prior Knowledge

Recommended prior lessons.

harmful chemicals in the atmosphere.

choice or decision.

graph using parallel bars of varying lengths to compare and contrast data.

to throw away or get rid of.

having to do with money.

(2,495 kilometers/1,550 miles) river in South Asia that originates in the Himalaya and empties into the Bay of Bengal. Also called the Ganga.

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

study of the past.

difference in size, amount, or quality between two or more things.

introduction of harmful materials into the surface environment.

garbage, refuse, or other objects that enter the coastal or ocean environment.

community of living and nonliving things in the ocean.

piece of plastic between 0.3 and 5 millimeters in diameter.

chemical material that can be easily shaped when heated to a high temperature.

set of actions or rules.

introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

descriptive information that does not use numbers.

combination of social and economic factors.

text and graphics arranged in order along a line to give information about when events or phenomena occurred. Timelines are sometimes used on maps to give a better idea of how time relates to the data or theme represented.

material that has been used and thrown away.

collection, disposal, or recycling of materials that people have discarded.

introduction of harmful materials into a body of water.

animal that is not domesticated or trained to live safely around humans.

organisms living in a natural environment.

For Further Exploration

Articles & profiles.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Activity 1 Credits

Alex Goodell, PhD

Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society

Educator Reviewer

National Board Certified Teacher; Instructional Specialist -- Social Studies 6-12

Expert Reviewer

National Geographic Grantee

Clint Parks

Activity 2 Credits

Activity 3 credits, activity 4 credits, activity 5 credits, additional credits for this lesson.

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Related Resources

how to solve the problem of plastic

Introducing the Plastic Problem

how to solve the problem of plastic

Plastics, Plastics, Everywhere

Students learn basic background information about the plastics crisis, including what defines plastics, where plastic pollution comes from, and how it gets into the ocean. Working together as part of a publishing team, they synthesize a variety of multimedia resources to create their own Ocean Plastics Movement Model explaining the forces that affect plastics on a global scale. This lesson is part of the Plastics: From Pollution to Solutions  unit.

how to solve the problem of plastic

Plastic in the Ganges River

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Solving the plastic problem: from cradle to grave, to reincarnation

This is a write-up of a talk that I gave to the Conway Hall Ethical Society, in London, recently. It is due to be published in the Society’s journal “Ethical Record”, but this has been delayed due to the present Covid-19 situation.


It is ironic, amid the current consternation over plastic pollution, that the first synthetic plastic (a form of nitrocellulose) was intended to provide environmental protection, by reducing demand for ivory, from which billiard balls were made, although these ersatz versions would occasionally explode when struck. Indeed, it has been reported that the American inventor, John Wesley Hyatt, who introduced it for this purpose, commented that, “in spite of their tendency to catch fire, cellulose nitrate saved the elephant”.

The subsequent, and profound, incorporation of plastics into the commercial fabric of civilization, substantially contributed to its growth, and to the creation of a consumer society. Thus in 1950, a total of less than 2 million tonnes of plastics were manufactured, a tally that was estimated to have reached 464 million tonnes in 2018, and which, according to different projections, might reach 1124 million tonnes or 1900 million tonnes in 2050. The proliferation of plastic materials in society is underpinned by their durability, cheapness and ease of production, along with strength, but low mass, as compared to other materials, for example metals.

Thus, public and private transportation vehicles can now contain up to 20%, by weight, of plastic materials, and for the Boeing “Dreamliner” Jumbo Jet, the proportion is around 50%, thus allowing an expected 20% reduction in the amount of fuel needed to be burned for each flight.

As a result of unremitting media coverage, the discharge of plastic waste into the environment, particularly the oceans, is now generally accepted to be a serious global problem, as was superlatively emphasised in the final episode of the Blue Planet II series on BBC television, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which has led to what is known as “The Blue Planet Effect”: a galvanization of action across society to curb the unnecessary use of plastic, and reduce plastic waste, particularly from packaging.

However, in 2020, so called “Covid-waste”, which includes items such as facemasks, disposable gloves and hand-sanitiser bottles, along with other means employed to deal with the pandemic, have contributed a further burden of plastic pollution.

Failure of the linear economic system.

While application of the linear economic model, which uses resources in a “take-make-dispose” manner, has generated unequalled levels of growth, it results in the production of insuperable levels of waste, and the resource production rates required to support it have risen to non-maintainable levels. As applied to plastic production, a global environmental calamity has ensued, since some 90% of the items made from plastics are for “single use”, after which they are thrown away. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic, manufactured since 1950, 6.3 billion tonnes has ended up as plastic waste, of which around 79% has accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment, and in the region of 8-9 million tonnes is believed to enter the oceans annually, perhaps 2.4 million tonnes of which is delivered there by rivers.

Plastics are extremely durable, and although this makes them highly useful in a myriad of applications, they are estimated to persist in the open environment for hundreds of years, and indeed, it has been argued that plastic never fully degrades, but merely fragments into increasingly smaller pieces (microplastics, and nanoplastics) that may impact, adversely, on marine life, and which are entering and propagating up the food chain. Hence, it is not only necessary to seek solutions to the problem of plastic pollution that already exists in the environment, but to achieve a future in which further such contamination by plastic is ameliorated.

The resource depletion/plastic pollution problem may be partly mitigated via the reuse economy, which involves some degree of reusing or repurposing of items, although non-recyclable waste is still generated, while the circular economy aims to avoid the production of waste altogether, with maximum recycling as an essential component, being modelled on the way natural systems operate, such as a forest, where outputs from some processes become inputs for others, e.g. the annual leaf litter from trees is cycled into the creation of new soil, which provides a medium for new growth, and nourishes and nurtures the entire ecosystem.

Thus, we see that improved design, in all respects of our civilization, may serve to address and mitigate many of the issues, including plastic pollution, that presently confront us, acknowledging that these are not individual problems (“the world’s woes”) that can be approached in isolation, but are interrelated symptoms (“cracks in the wall”) of a broader reality of global systemic failure. Thus, the term “the changing climate” has been used, rather than ”climate change” – i.e. as driven by fossil fuel burning/global warming – to encompass the many aspects of transformation that we currently experience.


Bioplastics are more correctly termed “biobased polymers”, and have been proposed as alternatives to petroleum derived plastics. However, it can be concluded that to replace the present ca 400 million tonne annual production of largely petroleum based plastics by biobased polymers would require ca 150 million hectares of arable land, or 11% of the total available on Earth, while to thus meet a projected growth in production/demand to 1900 tonnes, by 2050, some 52% of the Earth’s arable land would need to be commandeered, leading to a serious competition between using land to grow crops for food or plastic, similar to the issue of creating first generation biofuels from land based crops (i.e. should the priority be to feed people or to fuel cars?). Polylactic acid (PLA) has attracted particular interest due to the expectation that it will degrade more rapidly in the environment than the more usual petroleum based plastics, and thus be prevented from similarly accumulating there.

how to solve the problem of plastic

However, although items made from PLA, such as tumblers for drinks, are often labelled as “100% degradable” and “100% compostable”, both descriptors may be misleading. In particular, although the term “biodegradable” means that the component polymer molecules are expected to break down eventually, under the influence of microbial action, it does not specify any definite timescale for the process, which might take very many years. Similarly, the material does not readily break down in a garden compost heap, but requires the more aggressive conditions of an industrial composting facility to be decomposed into actual “compost.”

The ubiquitous presence of microplastics.

The U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration categorises microplastics as being less than 5 mm in diameter. Primary microplastics are plastic particles that were originally manufactured at those sizes in which they are encountered in the environment, and include microfibres from clothing, microbeads, and pellets (nurdles) from which plastic items are made. Secondary microplastics are formed by the degradation of larger plastic items, including bottles for water and other drinks, plastic bags and fishing nets. Evidence for the ubiquity of microplastic pollution is accumulating rapidly, and wherever such material is sought, it seems to be found.

Thus, microplastics have been identified in: Arctic sea ice, the air, soils, rivers, aquifers, remote maintain regions, food, drinking water, the oceans and ocean sediments, including waters and deep sea sediments around Antarctica, and within the deepest marine trenches of the Earth. They have also been detected in the bodies of animals, including humans, and as being passed along the hierarchy of food chains, up to marine top predators.

Using less plastic in the first place.

Although there are significant potentials that might be realised through technological advances, both in the manufacture of conventional plastics, and the design of items made from them (to make them more conveniently recyclable), through the introduction of biobased polymers (so long as food production is not compromised), and improved collection and recycling methods, these are all largely means to alleviate the status quo, but essentially to preserve business as usual. However, various lifecycle analyses identify the importance of reducing our demand for plastic materials per se.

Around one half of plastic waste (by mass) arises from plastic packaging, and if the 90% of all plastic items that are used once, and then thrown away, are tallied together, some 50% of the total mass of manufactured plastics is thus accounted for. The “Blue Planet Effect” has stimulated several UK supermarkets to offer plastic-free alternatives, although in some cases such “loose” fruit and vegetables are more expensive to buy than their plastic wrapped counterparts.

It has been argued that plastic packaging results in food lasting longer, with less being wasted; however, this is only necessary as part of a global/industrial food production/distribution network, and a counterargument is that it leads to more food being bought, e.g. “buy one get one free” deals, but which is often then thrown away. However, when food is grown locally, more of it tends to be eaten, and more quickly, with a reduced necessity for plastic packaging. In addition, such a more “localised” approach means that fewer vehicles are necessary, and hence less plastic is needed to fabricate their various components, along with a reduction in microplastic pollution, e.g. from tyre abrasion on road surfaces.

Campaigns to reduce waste from carrier bags (Polyethylene) and drinks bottles (PET) in Europe suggest that behavioural adjustments are possible, but plastics are such a deeply entrenched feature of our modern, consumer society that to break free from them entirely seems a remote prospect, at least without drastic changes to the fabric and mechanism of that society. Given that only 20% of global plastic waste is recycled, currently, considerable and fundamental amendments are required, and urgently, to make a real impact on eliminating plastic waste.

The future of plastics.

Despite the concern for the environment engendered by plastic pollution, which has led to a current sense of “all plastics are bad”, and the declaration of a “War on Plastic”, it is very unlikely that society can manage entirely without plastic materials, at least for the foreseeable future. The availability of cheap and diverse kinds of plastic has underpinned the growth of the consumer society, by unleashing a flood of consumer goods, e.g. the vast proliferation of mobile phones and related devices might not have occurred if they had to be made of something else, such as metals, and while plastics are indeed wonderful, they serve to drive and maintain a culture of modern consumerism. To reduce our use of plastic would necessitate fundamental changes to our behaviour and value systems. In the main, plastics would be best reserved for particular applications where they are not easily substituted for by other materials.

It has been reckoned that, in 2050, 20% of the global oil supply will be consumed by the plastic industry. Oil is needed for many other purposes, but depletion means potential problems in maintaining overall production, in particular if the fracking industry, which is currently running at a financial loss, stalls. In 1955, the American, Life Magazine, celebrated the dawn of “Throwaway Living”, but we have since learned that there is no “away” where we can throw anything. Plastics are indeed wonder-materials, and have facilitated the creation of the modern, industrialised world. However, their robustness means they degrade only slowly and poorly in the environment, and are now identified as a ubiquitous source of pollution throughout the planetary bodies of land, air and water.

The emergence of nanoplastics in the environment poses a new set of potential threats, although, as with microplastics, any human health consequences are as yet unknown, save, as indicated from model studies. Nonetheless, there are significant grounds for concern, and indeed, plastic pollution is just one element in the overall matrix of a changing climate (“the world’s woes”), and must be addressed as part of an integrated consideration of how we use all resources, and the need to change our expectations, goals and lifestyles. Hence the word “reincarnation” in the title of this article, refers to a future civilization that is recast in using its resources to achieve regeneration, rather than degeneration, of the natural environment.


Rhodes, C.J. (2019). Solving the plastic problem: From cradle to grave, to reincarnation. Science Progress. 102(3), 218-248. Rhodes, C.J. (2018). Plastic pollution and potential solutions. Science Progress. 101(3), 207-260.

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Scientists finding new ways to fight plastic waste

Scientists discover two new ways to eliminate plastic waste

Scientists discover two new ways to eliminate plastic waste

Scientists at a Colorado lab are developing a mutant enzyme that quickly breaks down plastic as well as a lightweight plastic composite that is stronger and easier to recycle; Alicia Acuna has the details.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) scientist Gregg Beckham is an avid scuba diver. So he's seen the problem of plastics in the world's oceans firsthand.

"I've been going to some places fairly frequently for the last 15 or so years," he said, "and the prevalence of plastics that I've observed anecdotally in the ocean has certainly increased at least in the places that I frequent."

Beckham's sorrow about the situation has turned into a drive to make a difference. "It's something that as a scientist and an engineer I'm very motivated to start working on it to see if we can come up with solutions to fix this big problem."


The problem is massive, according to Nick Mallos, Director of The Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas Program. Said Mallos: "We know that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean every year. To put that into perspective that is roughly a New York City dump truck full of plastic emptying into the ocean every minute of every day for an entire year."

In an effort to help, Beckham and his teams have been trying to find ways to make discarded PET plastic, the kind used in bottles, containers and polyester, more valuable to recycle, thus giving people a reason to keep it out of landfills and waterways in the first place.

"You don't find many aluminum cans in the ocean because there's a good way to recycle aluminum," points out NREL Director Martin Keller. "It's an established, very well-developed method. So we need the same type of recycling method for plastic."


One breakthrough came as a pleasant surprise while Beckham and colleagues worked with researchers in London. They were studying the structure of an enzyme in a bacteria that was found to be eating plastic outside a bottle recycling plant in Japan.

"We thought we were gonna make the enzyme worse and in doing so understand how it evolved to break down plastic," Beckham explained. "We actually accidentally made it better, which was pretty exciting."

In nature, the enzyme takes centuries to degrade PET plastic. Beckham said the mutated enzyme now does the work in weeks or months, "And we're working to make it where we can actually get it down to days, which will be really exciting."

A second big breakthrough involves taking ground-up plastic bottles and mixing them with a biodegradable substance found in plants. "When we combine those in a very specific way, we can make a completely new type of plastic material that's like a composite."


It's the same kind of composite material already being added to fiberglass to make things like surfboards, snowboards, car parts and wind turbine blades.

EPA administrator says US will focus on plastic pollution in the oceans at G20 summit

Nick Rorrer is a postdoctoral researcher at NREL who's involved in the research. "One of the awesome things about our work," he said, "is we found that when we used both PET bottles and stuff that you get from biomass, you actually get better properties than what you would get using the typical kind of petroleum recipes for the manufacturing."

The result is something not only much stronger than today's oil-based material, but lighter, too.

The hope, Beckham said, is that scientific breakthroughs like these will make plastic much likely to be reused.

Mallos said the research is exciting. "Finding new materials or new approaches to break down plastics or recycle plastics is absolutely a piece of the puzzle." He cautioned, however, that "it's critical that we don't place too much weight in any one solution. We need a comprehensive approach to solve this problem globally."


"It's one part of a multipart solution to overcoming this problem," Beckham agreed. "Part of the solution has to be reduced use of, especially, single-use plastics around the world, as well as on top of that, both governments and industry coming together to put incentives in place to reclaim waste plastics."

NREL plans to have a pilot program up and running within a couple of years that will break down a ton of PET plastic every day.  The product will be used to make turbine blades at the National Wind Technology Center nearby.

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13 Fantastic Solutions to Plastic Pollution To Reduce Plastic Waste

13 Fantastic Solutions to Plastic Pollution To Reduce Plastic Waste

As the human population continues to grow, the amount of garbage produced also grows. People enjoy using plastic because it is flexible, relatively inexpensive, durable, and light – and it is used almost in everything including grocery bags and 3D printed rocket nozzles.

Currently, over 300 million tons of plastic are produced yearly with more than half used just once and thrown away. Statistics show that only 9 percent of plastic gets recycled while 12 percent incinerated.

The rate at which plastic waste is disposed to the environment is so alarming that scientists have even suggested that the world could be headed to the Anthropocene era.

But what could be the reason?

Plastic is made up of chemicals that make it resistant to degradation. Over the years, solving plastic pollution has been hindered by the fact that the pollutant size ranges from microscopic to big.

Fortunately, there are workable alternatives to entirely replace them while recycling solutions are also in place to reduce the already existing plastics. These alternatives can work better if both individuals and big companies agree to implement them.

Solutions to Plastic Pollution

The top solutions for reducing plastic pollution are:

1. Get Used to Not Using Disposable Plastics  

About ninety percent of the plastic products used every day are used once and then thrown: plastic wrap, grocery bags, straws, disposable cutlery, coffee-cup lids among others. Consider how you often depend on these items and change to reusable versions.

This is the most obvious and easiest way to eliminate the use of plastic in the future. Interestingly, nations like Kenya and France are phasing out single-use plastic bag by banning its products. Infractions with these products are heavily penalized and could send you to jail.

2. Incineration  

Over 60 percent of used or wasted plastic medical equipment is burnt rather than dumped in a landfill as a preventative measure to reduce the transmission of infections. This has significantly decreased the quantity of plastic waste from medical equipment.

3. Avoid Using Bottled Water  

People are advised to drink a lot of water, at least 8-ounce glasses every day. Many who stay outdoors throughout the day keep themselves hydrated using plastic water bottles , which are thrown to trash after use.

For that reason, you are encouraged to carry a reusable bottle with you, get a model with a built-in filter for your safety. Alternatively, turn to companies that are selling reusable water bottles to minimizing plastic waste and bottles vulnerable to leakage.

4. Institutional Arrangements and Creation of Awareness  

States can use their power and authority to control plastic pollution by forming various institutions that can manage and protect the ecosystems. For example, the Canadian federal government established an institution to safeguard marine areas.

In addition, these institutions can provide education to individuals and businesses about the alternatives they can shift to for bagging, storing and packaging. Put simply, people will be aware of the causes and effects of plastic pollution and how to prevent it.

5. Collection of Plastic  

This is done to limit the scattering of plastic waste in the environment. It can be done through the curbside collection, where people place used plastics in a special container to be collected by a private or public hauling company.

People can alternatively use drop-off recycling centers, where they take their plastic wastes to a centrally placed facility. Once collected, the wastes are taken to the factory for recycling. In the United States, more than 80 percent have access to these collection centers.

6. Policies

The Food and Drug Agency and the Environment Protection Agency are mandated to assess the safety of any new chemical before they are allowed for use. After the evaluation, policies are always put in place to help reduce plastic pollution and its ramifications.

Government regulations that ban the use of some chemicals in specific plastic products have been implemented in nations like the United States, European Union, and Canada.

Taxes can also be used as a way to discourage specific ways of plastic management. For example, the creation of landfill tax makes people prefer recycling plastics rather than landfilling them. Standardization of compostable plastics is also been used to slow down its production.

7. Fungus That Eats Plastic  

An unimaginable amount of plastic has been dropped into the environment over the years, and once there, many centuries will pass before it degrades. Even as above mentioned, remains of microplastic may continue to exist unnoticed.

But recently, scientists discovered Aspergillus Tubingensis, a plastic eating fungus that lives in the soil. It secretes enzymes which help to break down the polymer chains that hold plastic together.

The research is still on about the optimal condition for this organism to thrive in, after which, it will be introduced to begin the process of plastic eating.

8. Reuse of Plastic Waste

While the main objective of the world is to totally eliminate plastic items in the environment, it is also necessary to ensure that the existing ones are managed properly.

Individuals can enhance this by keeping safe the plastic bags they use at one time and go back with them to the shop.

Companies, on the other hand, can encourage reuse by including some deposits on packaging, with the amount refunded upon return. This may force companies to switch to reusable packaging that can be returned and reused.

9. Mushroom Packaging  

Science is always good at identifying a problem and providing a solution to it no matter how long it takes. With this new discovery, the future of plastic packaging is at stake. It introduces the world to biodegradable packaging.

Mushroom packaging is fire resistant and can be molded to any shape easily. It is composed of an extensive connection of thread-like roots called mycelium. Scientists have perfected this packaging and are currently making structures with it.

After use, it can be thrown away where it naturally decomposes.

10. Packaging Using Milk Products  

In what may seem impossible, an agricultural research team in the United States has created a packaging item derived from milk proteins. Though it is relatively expensive, it preserves food and conserves the environment better than plastic.

11. 3D-Printing Recycled Plastic  

ReDeTec has developed a system that can convert plastic wastes into a completely new filament and then use it to print new objects.

The printer known as ProtoCycler can be filled with a variety of plastic items like rejected 3D-printer models and bottles where it grinds them into small pieces before melting and releasing spools of plastic filament for use on the next project.

12. Recycling Plastic into Oil  

Perhaps the most advanced way to eradicate plastic is to convert it back to the crude oil, a state it once was, then use it again.

According to Akinori Ito, the Japanese inventor of a household appliance that converts plastic into fuel, plastic is nothing but a processed crude oil, which can be transformed back to its original form and be used as an alternative fuel.

13. Using Edible Cutlery  

The easiest way to reduce waste from parties and picnics is to feast on the tools you’ve just eaten with. The tools are made from rice, wheat, millet, and many other flavors. This dining innovation was offered by an Indian inventor and is soon hitting the whole world.

Paper or plastic? Policies inspired by research to find a solution to plastic pollution

Ocean plastic: How tech is being used to clean up waste problem

Plastic bottles pile up behind the Ocean Cleanup's Interceptor barrier in Kingston Harbour, Jamaica

Trying to solve the world's ocean plastic pollution problem has been a "long and painful journey" for Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat.

The 28-year-old founder of non-profit environmental organisation The Ocean Cleanup has been working on ways to filter plastic waste out of the Pacific Ocean for nearly 10 years.

He told BBC News it has been harder than he ever imagined it would be.

"The planet is pretty big, it turns out," Boyan said.

"There's about 1,000 rivers we need to tackle and five ocean garbage patches, [so] the first few years were really about trying to understand the problem."

The world's biggest area of accumulated ocean plastic, commonly dubbed " the Great Pacific Garbage Patch ", is located in the North Pacific Ocean.

Containing a huge build-up of plastic debris ranging from large fishing nets to flake-sized microplastics, it has been one of the main targets for The Ocean Cleanup team.

Casting the net

The Ocean Cleanup uses a long, u-shaped barrier, similar to a net, that is pulled through patches of rubbish by boats. It moves slowly to try to avoid harming marine life.

Cameras powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are used to continuously scan the ocean's surface for plastic and calibrate the team's computer models, helping them understand which parts of the Pacific area to target.

"When you look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, there's some areas that have a very high density of plastic and other areas that are virtually empty," he said.

"If we are continuously cleaning up inside those hotspots, we can of course be a lot more effective in our clean-up operation."

Plastic collected by the 800-metre-long (2,600ft) system, the second of its kind developed by the company, is periodically taken to land and emptied for recycling.

The Ocean Cleanup crew sorts through plastic on a ship deck after an extraction

Boyan said the system has so far cleaned up almost 200,000 kilograms (440,000 lbs) of ocean plastic.

While this represents just 0.2% of the 100 million kilograms of plastic contained in the world's largest patch of plastic rubbish, he said it was still worth it: "Everything big starts small, right?"

The team believes it will have collected 1% of the patch by the end of this year using its current system - but they are scaling up their operations to try to clean up patches faster.

They are developing System 3, a 2.4km (1.49 miles) long giant barrier, for use in the summer.

And The Ocean Cleanup hopes that rolling out 10 of these larger systems in the near-future could clean up to 80% of the North Pacific's plastic debris by the end of the decade.

Mock-up image comparing the size of its new, larger floating barrier to its current 800m system

Stemming the flow

Research carried out by the company in 2021 suggests about 1,000 of the world's rivers are the source of 80% of the river-borne plastic contributing to global ocean plastic pollution.

"The rivers are really the arteries that carry trash from land to sea," Boyan said. "So when it rains, plastic washes from streets into creeks, into rivers, and then ultimately to the ocean."

He says the fast-flowing nature of rivers can make stopping plastic even more difficult.

"In rivers you really only have one shot at catching the plastic - it just flows by and if you don't catch it, it's guaranteed to enter the ocean," he said.

Rubbish accumulates behind the barrier of an Interceptor system in Ballona Creek, California

The Ocean Cleanup uses its "Interceptor" solutions to try to catch rubbish in rivers before it reaches the sea.

The tech behind these varies according to factors such as width, depth, flow speed and debris type of the river in question - again assessed using AI-powered cameras.

Most of the deployments use a conveyor belt to extract the garbage from the water.

"We are intercepting plastic in 11 rivers around the world," Boyan said, "but ultimately aim to scale this to all 1,000 heaviest polluting rivers in the world."

Plastic rubbish gathered by an Interceptor moving along a conveyor belt

'Stopping the tap'

Prof Richard Lampitt of the National Oceanography Centre told BBC News in 2018 he believed using boats to pull nets and shuttle plastic from ocean garbage patches to ports could have a high carbon cost.

Several years later, he says he remains sceptical about this - but feels far more positive about targeting rubbish in rivers.

"The environmental costs are much, much lower," he said. "You haven't got to go 1,500km in order to get the stuff."

But noting the risks of microplastics to the heart of the marine ecosystem, Prof Lampitt said he thought that rather than cleaning up plastic in our seas, "it is really is an issue of stopping the tap and stopping this material getting into the ocean".

"I cannot think of any way that you can remove these from the natural environment from the ocean without causing massive damage to the food webs, and of course taking an awful lot of energy in order to do it," he said.

Boyan Slat stands on a beach covered in plastic bottles and items in Honduras

While trying to take on the world's marine pollution problem is undoubtedly tough, and contingent on reduced plastic production and consumption in the first place, Boyan has high hopes for the future.

"I truly believe that with these technologies to clean up the legacy pollution in the ocean and to intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the oceans, we will actually able to to put ourselves out of business in the not-so-distant future," he added.

You can watch the full report on Click

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How Can We Solve the Problem of Plastic Waste?

The earth is home to millions of species of plants and animals as well as countless ecosystems. We ourselves call various ecosystems our home and co-exist on this planet with other living organisms. However, there is one problem that is slowly destroying all environmental aspects of our dear planet at a steady rate – plastic.

Plastic waste is not a new environmental problem. The material has been around for ages now and is one of the most widely used materials today because of its ease of manufacturing, durability and use. While it is extremely useful to us, the material has many major problems that make it a devastating factor for our environment.

Problems like being non-degradable, toxic and straight up harmful for animals and plants make plastic one of the environment’s number one enemies. There are many companies and agencies actively working to solve this issue and you can find out more about them by clicking on this website here.

Many people are concerned about the rising danger of plastic waste and actively look for ways to resolve the problem. If you too are one of them and are looking for ways to solve the ongoing crisis then don’t worry because we have you covered. In this article we will be talking about various ways through which you can easily solve the crisis in a number of simple and easy ways. Read the article till the end so that you don’t miss out on crucial details.

Page Contents

Reduce usage of single-use plastics

how to solve the problem of plastic

Source: euractiv.com

While we strongly recommend that you avoid using plastic items altogether, there are some essential items that are just too convenient to be avoided such as hard-plastic bottles or food containers. That being said, oftentimes we encounter items that are made for a single time use and are usually discarded as soon as their function ceases to exist.

The prime example of such products is packaged water bottles, polythene bags , straws and cups. Since they are used only once, they are quickly thrown away and this only leads to a piling up of unnecessary waste consisting mostly of polythene and other such polymers. We strongly urge you to avoid using these products at all cost and instead opt for multi-use options.

It is also imperative that you take the initiative to businesses and refuse purchasing plastic products that come with the single use label. Either take your own storage items and utensils to cover up the lack or firmly tell the business to use eco-friendly alternatives for packaging that can not only help them become environmentally friendly but also improve business reputation.

Urge your city to use smart bins

There is a new trend going on in many cities around the world that have started stepping towards a greener and sustainable future and that trend is opting for smart bins. These smart bins are garbage bins that have advanced technological features installed in them that recognizes garbage and compresses it so it occupies less space.

This also helps the garbage bin stay relatively empty and when it does get full, an automatic signal is sent to nearby garbage trucks that informs them of the pickup. This is one of the most efficient ways of garbage disposal since it saves fuel, time and also helps plastic get sorted out from the rest of the garbage for easy recycling.

Recycle as much as you can

how to solve the problem of plastic

Source: econlib.org

We know it can be hard to recycle every plastic item you have in the house but there are many homeowners and individuals that have come up with innovative ways of recycling that you can adopt in your own home or business store. For example, cutting the top end of your single-use plastic water bottles and using them to store your plants can not only give you a good flowerpot to work with but also make your home look more decorative.

The more you recycle and reuse the products you have, the better you can make an impact on the environment near you. You’d be surprised to know that only a small amount of plastic that gets created ever gets recycled and that has been one of the most major factors for the sudden increase in the polymer waste in oceans and the environment.

Participate in cleanups

Just recently, a team initiative called TeamSeas started by a youtuber took the world by storm and inspired everyone who got to know about it to clean their nearby beaches and water bodies of plastic waste. You’d be surprised to know that many cleanup initiatives and programs start on a regular basis but hardly see a noticeable attendance of volunteers.

Participating in one of these cleanups and providing a hand to help mother nature can be one of the most effective ways of reducing the amount of waste littering our shorelines and rivers.

Sign petitions and bans against plastic use

how to solve the problem of plastic

Source: nationalgeographic.org

Considering the environmental harm plastic waste possesses, many countries have started banning the use of regular polymer products and are instead encouraging businesses and citizens to opt for renewable and sustainable alternatives instead.

However, there are many countries where using plastic is still not banned and in countries like these it is your responsibility as a citizen to start petitions that ban the use of single-use plastic products. Remember, when you raise your voice and take action against the environmental harm we are doing to our earth, only then industries and businesses will realize the true gravity of their actions.

Avoid products that have microbeads

Last, but not the least, you should definitely avoid products that contain any sort of microbeads made from polyethylene or polypropylene. This type of plastic is a lot more common than you’d have guessed and is found in most face washes, scrubs, toothpaste and any product that gives you a “rubbing sensation” when you use it.

There are many organic alternatives to obtain that same effect and sensation which is why it should be your number one priority to avoid any microbead products you see on the market.


There are several ways through which you can easily resolve the problem of plastic waste. We hope this article was helpful for you in doing just that and if it was, please consider following our website for regular updates as it will help us out immensely.

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Solutions To Plastic Problems & Plastic Pollution, & Managing Plastic Into The Future

Solutions To Plastic Problems, & Managing Plastic Into The Future

This is our consolidated guide on solutions to plastic problems.

– Potential solutions to a range of plastic problems across society

Summary – Solutions To Plastic Problems, & Managing Plastic Into The Future

The Use Of Plastic Has Tradeoffs

Plastic as a material has many uses across different industries and sectors of society , and benefits society in a number of ways as a result

The Management Of Plastic

Some Additional Research & Data Might Be Required For Some Plastic Problems

Another example might be the extent and also the impact of plastic pollution on land

In solving plastic problems, there’s more than the environmental sustainability impact of plastic to consider.

Each one of the above aspects contributes to the net impact of plastic.

Structure Of This Guide

– General Solutions To Plastic Problems

– Solutions To Land Based Plastic Problems

Each ‘solutions’ section considers how to manage different aspects of different plastic problems. 

General Solutions To Plastic Problems

Alternatively, a variation of this is to reduce the use of some of the more problematic plastics

– Re-using and repurposing plastic, or finding secondary uses for plastic, before sending it to waste

Some plastic items can also be up cycled or down cycled and used in other products, such as turning plastic into plastic fill for another product.

New recycling methods like chemical recycling may be a net benefit for the management of some plastic waste not easily processed by mechanical recycling

Some countries and regions have higher mismanaged plastic and plastic pollution rates than others.

Another example for regions with waste incineration technology is improving emissions and pollutant capture technology and devices at incineration and waste to energy plants. This would help reduce emissions and air pollutants.

Redesign plastic packaging and plastic products to use less problem type plastics (such as less packaging), or to be more recyclable, more re-usable, better for repurposing, or compostable

Such as new bioplastics that aren’t based on non renewable fossil fuel feedstock

– Using alternate materials to plastic  where possible

Consider where alternatives to plastic for drink bottles and food containers can be safer or more beneficial (especially for drinking water)

These stages include the production, use, waste, disposal and waste management, and pollution of plastic

– Assess each problem individually

Instead, we’ve tried to focus on more specific and unique solutions to the individual plastic problems listed.

Solutions To Individual Plastic Problems

For each type of plastic we might ask how are they causing problems, and for who (humans? wildlife? the air, water and soil in the environment? the economy?)?

Plastics are actually very beneficial at the transport and pre consumer phase in a lot of ways (plastics are lighter, more affordable, more flexible, more durable, and more eco friendly to produce and use than some alternate materials).

If a plastic has a longer lifespan, and contributes to making things safer or more economical in society, it might be considered a lower priority to cut the consumption of compared to plastics that don’t

Some countries consume/use plastic at far higher rates than others

Plastic pollution is a result of mismanaged plastic, which involves littered plastic, and plastic that is inadequately disposed of by leaking from waste management systems, such as open dumping sites and uncontained landfills

Highly disposable, single use plastics like plastic food wrappers, plastic bags, plastic straws etc  are often the most littered plastic items too . So, this is something to keep in mind

On land, in rivers and freshwater sources, on beaches and coastlines, and in oceans

And, sometimes there are organisations and initiatives that clean up plastic specifically in rivers and oceans

There’s many reasons why majority of plastic isn’t being recycled, and why some plastic gets rejected from recycling facilities (plastic is mixed, plastic is contaminated, it’s a non recyclable plastic etc.).

Some cities and town don’t have recycling facilities at all, and others have facilities that are simply too inefficient or can’t process enough types of plastic products in an effective way

Solutions To Ocean Based Plastic Problems

Solutions to land based plastic problems, solutions to the 21 potential harmful effects of plastic.

Using and disposing of plastics in a way where they are less likely to leach, or, substituting additives that can be more hazardous, might be two potential solutions.

– Better plastic recycling

Make sure landfill sites in low to middle income countries are secure and closed off, to prevent the leaking of plastic into the environment.

Ingestion of micro plastics would be harder to address.

– Plastic uses fossil fuels in it’s production

But also, reducing plastic pollution in the environment and restricting plastic to landfill would help with this.

What Other Groups Say About Solutions To Plastic Problems

– The ourworldindata.org resource has information on how individuals, producers and industry, and government and policy makers can address plastic issues on each level

The challenge and opportunity of a New Plastics Economy is carving a circular path for plastics, indeed for the entire economy, that aligns itself with natural processes, resources efficiency, and economic sustainability.

Design plastic with recycling in mind

3. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/most-common-plastic-waste-generated-found-on-beaches-in-oceans-on-land/

12. https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics

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Oceanic Society

A sea turtle mistakes a plastic bag for food. © Ben J. Hicks / benjhicks.com

One of the reasons that plastic pollution is such a problem is that it doesn’t go away: “plastics are forever.” Instead, plastic debris simply breaks down into ever-smaller particles, known as microplastics , whose environmental impacts are still being determined.

Plastic Pollution Solutions: 7 Things You Can Do Today

Everyone can do something to help solve the plastic pollution problem, and millions of people worldwide are already taking action to reduce their plastic use . Here are seven ways you can make a difference, starting today.

1. Reduce Your Use of Single-Use Plastics

Wherever you live, the easiest and most direct way that you can get started is by reducing your own use of single-use plastics. Single-use plastics include plastic bags, water bottles, straws, cups, utensils, dry cleaning bags, take-out containers, and any other plastic items that are used once and then discarded.

The best way to do this is by a) refusing any single-use plastics that you do not need (e.g. straws, plastic bags, takeout utensils, takeout containers), and b) purchasing, and carrying with you, reusable versions of those products, including reusable grocery bags , produce bags , bottles , utensils , coffee cups , and dry cleaning garment bags . And when you refuse single-use plastic items, help businesses by letting them know that you would like them to offer alternatives.

2. Support Legislation to Curb Plastic Production and Waste

As important as it is to change our individual behaviors, such changes alone are insufficient to stop ocean plastic pollution. We also need legislation that reduces plastic production, improves waste management, and makes plastic producers responsible for the waste they generate. There are a variety of ways that you can support local, national, and international legislation that provide critical solutions to reduce plastic pollution. One such effort in the United States is the 2021 Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act , a comprehensive federal bill that aims to address the plastic pollution crisis, and there are a number of state level initiatives to introduce extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation that makes plastic producers and distributors responsible for their products and packaging at the end of life.

At the international level, hundreds of organizations and businesses are calling on the United Nations to enact a global plastics treaty that would set global rules and regulations that would reduce plastic pollution. And legislation that limits, taxes, or bans unnecessary single use plastic items, such as plastic bags, takeout containers, and bottles, has been successfully enacted in many places globally, and you can support the adoption of such policies in your community too. Here is a comprehensive resource and toolkit on legislative approaches to limiting plastic bags, foodware, microplastics, and more.

3. Recycle Properly

This should go without saying, but when you use single-use (and other) plastics that can be recycled, always be sure to recycle them. At present, just 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide . Recycling helps keep plastics out of the ocean and reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation. If you need help finding a place to recycle plastic waste near you, check Earth911’s recycling directory . It’s also important to check with your local recycling center about the types of plastic they accept.

4. Participate In (or Organize) a Beach or River Cleanup

Help remove plastics from the ocean and prevent them from getting there in the first place by participating in, or organizing a cleanup of your local beach or waterway. This is one of the most direct and rewarding ways to fight ocean plastic pollution. You can simply go to the beach or waterway and collect plastic waste on your own or with friends or family, or you can join a local organization’s cleanup or an international event like our Global Ocean Cleanup  or the International Coastal Cleanup .

  Take Our 7-Day Fight Plastic Waste Challenge Join the global movement to fight plastic waste with our 7-day challenge. With just a few minutes a day, you’ll be on your way to reducing ocean plastic pollution from home. Take the Challenge

5. Avoid Products Containing Microbeads

Tiny plastic particles, called “ microbeads ,” have become a growing source of ocean plastic pollution in recent years. Microbeads are found in some face scrubs, toothpastes, and bodywashes, and they readily enter our oceans and waterways through our sewer systems, and affect hundreds of marine species. Avoid products containing plastic microbeads by looking for “polythelene” and “polypropylene” on the ingredient labels of your cosmetic products (find a list of products containing microbeads here ).

6. Spread the Word

Stay informed on issues related to plastic pollution and help make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family about how they can be part of the solution, or host a viewing party for one of the many plastic pollution focused documentaries, like A Plastic Ocean , Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic , Bag It , Addicted to Plastic , Plasticized , or Garbage Island .

7. Support Organizations Addressing Plastic Pollution

There are many non-profit organizations working to reduce and eliminate ocean plastic pollution in a variety of different ways, including Oceanic Society , Plastic Pollution Coalition , 5 Gyres , Algalita , Plastic Soup Foundation , and others. These organizations rely on donations from people like you to continue their important work. Even small donations can make a big difference!

These seven ideas only scratch the surface for ways you can help address the growing problem of plastic pollution in the oceans. The important thing is that we all do something, no matter how small. For more ideas and resources, sign up to join our Blue Habits community of people worldwide committed to joyful daily actions that improve ocean health.

  Reduce Plastic Pollution From Home with Our 7-Day Challenge Join the global movement to fight plastic waste by participating in our 7-day challenge. Take the Challenge

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how to solve the problem of plastic

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A new plan for fighting global plastic waste

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Since plastic was first invented

A decade later, that trip still looms large for Wang. She is now the cofounder, along with her former classmate Jeanny Yao, of an innovation chemical company called Novoloop, which is dedicated to solving the seemingly insurmountable problem of global plastic waste. Wang—who won a prestigious award from Rolex in 2019—cites their shared high-school landfill experience as the day they both realized the immensity of the challenge. “This was a big moment in our lives,” she said. “It was a wake-up call for us.”

This was a big moment in our lives. It was a wake-up call for us.” Miranda Wang

Standing at the foot of those rolling hills of garbage in 2010, Wang couldn’t believe that more wasn’t being done to tackle the huge problem staring her in the face. She didn’t understand, then, that the accumulation of so much plastic waste wasn’t entirely caused by the negligence of businesses, households or individual consumers; rather, it was also due to the fact that many forms of plastic couldn’t be recycled. At least not back then. Not before Wang and her team developed an innovative chemical process that is poised to overcome this immense challenge.

The bacteria fallacy

Since plastic was first invented, the material has been infiltrating our ecosystems. Just nine percent has been recycled, while 79 percent has either been sent to landfills, ended up as land pollution or cast into the world’s oceans. (The remaining 12 percent has been incinerated.) What’s more, the United States currently ranks as the world’s leading contributor of plastic waste.

“The United States’s recycling infrastructure has failed to keep up with the pace of plastic production,” said Jeff Kirschner, the founder and CEO of Litterati, a startup aiming to curb plastic pollution by incentivizing litter collection. “Add in littering, illegal dumping, and inefficient waste management, and the problem of plastic waste has only worsened.”

The United States’s recycling infrastructure has failed to keep up with the pace of plastic production.” JEFF KIRSCHNER, CEO OF LITTERATI

Awoken to this crisis, teenage Wang and Yao immediately sought solutions. The duo had an interesting hypothesis: What if bacteria could break down plastic? With help from a renowned local biochemistry professor, Wang and Yao discovered a type of bacteria in a local river that was feeding upon plastics—specifically, phthalates, a component used in a variety of products ranging from baby toys to food wrappers. The duo entered their research into a local science competition and won. Soon after, they were invited to give a 2013 TED Talk on the subject. The presentation went viral, inspiring countless other young environmentalists around the world, including many who wrote to Wang and Yao for guidance on how to replicate their work.

how to solve the problem of plastic

Miranda Wang discusses how a trip to a landfill in high school inspired her to pursue solving the plastic problem.

Miranda Wang describes the process by which her team breaks down unrecyclable plastics.

These clips were taken from Episode 7 of Planet Visionaries, a podcast that delves into the extraordinary work of a range of Change Makers supported by Rolex. Episode 7, which features a conversation with Wang, is available for download now.

Wang and her team developed an innovative chemical process.

At university, however, as Wang’s studies in molecular biology progressed, she began to doubt the practicality of her discovery. “Using bacteria to break down trash is not a scalable method,” she said, noting their initial process wasn’t viable to address the worldwide scope of plastic pollution. The realization, however, sparked a renewed commitment to finding an effective approach to combatting waste. “And [Yao] felt the same way—for us to get back together and do something,” she said.

Photo credits: ©Novoloop/Kenneth Wiatrak and ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

A different type of recycling

In 2015, Wang and Yao started Novoloop, then known as BioCellection, hiring three of their classmates to join the team within the first year. At first, the Silicon Valley–based startup was still focused on bacteria-powered approaches, investigating potential genetic-engineering methods of growing more efficient plastic-feasting microorganisms. But they soon abandoned their bacterial technique entirely. Instead, the team pivoted to a purely chemical-based solution, which could be more easily applied at scale.

This is the basis of Novoloop’s current technology. Their unique process, designed for polyethylene—the most common plastic in the world, much of which is unrecyclable—chemically breaks down the material’s molecular structure. What’s more, the method actually transforms the waste into new compounds that can be utilized in everything from solvents to perfumes.

I think that has been the most rewarding part—finding people who are truly similar and crazily passionate about some problem that they’re working on.” Miranda Wang

The innovation has garnered funding support from sources as diverse as the United Nations and the founder of Salesforce, as well as a steady stream of accolades, including from Rolex. Wang was selected from among more than 950 candidates to be named one of five Laureates of the 2019 Rolex Awards. Since 1976, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise have been discovering and fostering the work of exceptional innovators from all manner of world-benefiting endeavors.

340 million

“Because the Awards have been around for so many years now, the community has grown to over 150 Laureates,” said Wang of her experience so far. “I think that has been the most rewarding part—finding people who are truly similar and crazily passionate about some problem that they’re working on.”

The world wakes up

In recent years, the world has begun to come to terms with the plastic problem. Local governments have instituted plastic bag bans and restaurants are starting to offer reusable or compostable straws. Yet these interventions barely put a dent in the 340 million metric tons of plastic that is produced annually, says Wang.

“We’re at a point where everything that we use and make is vertically integrated and depends on this material,” she stressed. “So, whether we like it or not, we need to create an end-of-life solution. And that’s exactly what we’re working on.”

After a series of successful proof-of-concept tests on the chemical technology, the company has begun partnering with material recovery facilities. The goal is to intervene and collect plastic before it’s combined with other garbage into 1,500-pound bales intended for landfills. A pilot project in the City of San Jose is currently underway.

Rolex has helped shine a light on the work we do, boosting my fundraising to scale-up this new technology invention.” Miranda Wang

The award has helped move these initiatives forward. “Rolex has helped shine a light on the work we do,” she noted, “boosting my fundraising to scale-up this new technology invention.”

The recognition may also yield some new collaborations. Wang mentioned the possibility of partnering with other members of the Rolex Laureate community on future projects, though was guarded about the details—for now. She’s also hopeful her company’s innovations can make inroads in new industries.

“We’re working on scaling up our technology,” Wang said, noting that Novoloop’s chemistry-based process has the potential to transform a much broader category of materials in supply chains, and could even function as a replacement for certain petrochemicals and fossil fuels. “There’s a lot of opportunity here.”

These are initial steps, but ones that could presage a revolution in how we manage plastic pollution. The need has never been more urgent. At the present rate, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills within three decades. A recent report also showed an increase in personal protective equipment (PPE) litter, much of it containing plastics, during the pandemic.

Yet still, Wang’s perspective is much different today than it was when she first looked out over that Vancouver landfill. Her team’s work is giving her hope: “We feel like this innovation is the only missing piece of the link right now.”

Rolex is supporting exceptional individuals and organizations on their mission to make the planet perpetual.

PET plastic bottles await recycling

Alex Whiting

How to Solve the Problem of Plastic Packaging

Walking down the street, or visiting the park or beach, there’s one thing you’ll almost inevitably see: pieces of plastic packaging—washed up on the sand, tangled in a hedgerow, lying in the gutter.

Plastics are polluting all corners of the planet, from the Arctic to the ocean depths, with as yet unknown consequences for human health. Already 11 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. Without radical change, the amount of plastic waste generated worldwide could double by 2040 and, if waste infrastructure can’t keep up, the amount of plastic entering the ocean will nearly triple, according to research by the Pew Charitable Trusts .

In the battle to stem the tide of plastic waste, companies and academics are developing new ways to reduce plastic packaging— the single largest source of this waste . Clever designs for alternative materials abound, including edible water containers made from algae , compostable packaging made from fungi , and water bottles constructed out of paper. “There is a lot of space for shifting plastic packaging to other materials,” says Jim Palardy , project director of Conservation Science at Pew, and a coauthor of a report that assesses ways to end plastic pollution.

But inroads made by such substitutes are not yet enough to end our enormous reliance on plastic. Plastics production has almost doubled since 2000, and is expected to grow significantly in the next 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency . And the track record of where these materials tend to end up isn’t great. Up to 2018, about 80 percent of all virgin plastics ever produced had wound up either in landfill or in the natural environment.

Despite the gloomy statistics, our addiction to plastic packaging is not all bad, says Richard Thompson , director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth. Plastic is lightweight, highly durable, inexpensive, and very versatile. “Although I’m a marine biologist that works on the impacts of plastic in the ocean, I actually think plastics are really wonderful. It’s just that we’ve failed to use them responsibly.”

The solution to the plastics problem, Thompson argues, lies in plastics themselves: “Before we start looking for other substances, we need to do a much better, more responsible job of what we do with the material we have already got.”

Janelle Monae in a shadowy room with a mirror reflecting her profile

This means designing plastic packaging so that it’s easier to recycle. Plastics are made of large molecules called polymers, with different plastic types made up of different ones. The plastics most commonly used in packaging are polyethylene (of various densities), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and, to a lesser extent, polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

The easiest to recycle are PET and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which are used to make soft drinks bottles or containers . What makes recycling difficult is when different plastic types are used together, as well as the sheer variety of plastic on the market, as different types have to be separated to be recycled. ( Research into recycling different plastics together is underway, but still at an early stage.) So reducing the diversity of plastic polymers used would make recycling much easier and more cost effective.

“We’ve got thousands of different polymer permutations,” says Thompson, even in single-use plastic packaging, which comprises 40 percent of all the plastic made. “We could probably do most of the heavy lifting for all of the single-use packaging with two or three different polymers,” he says.

Companies are now beginning to respond to this challenge. “You need to go to one rough polymer design while maintaining the functionality,” says Marco ten Bruggencate, a commercial vice president for packaging and specialty plastics at Dow, one of the world’s biggest chemical companies. That “functionality” includes preserving whatever product is in the container while maintaining its brand appeal. Dow mainly produces polyethylene (PE) for packaging, a plastic which can be used to make containers for a wide variety of products, from shampoo bottles to food packaging film.

Manufacturers know how to make between 80 percent and 90 percent of all packaging recyclable, says Ten Bruggencate. But solutions still need to be found for the remainder, such as packaging for cheese and meat. The challenge here, Ten Bruggencate says, is creating packaging that keeps meat fresh, but which is made from one-polymer polyethylene rather than a complex structure of different polymers. “You need to be able to innovate to enable all these functionalities within one polymer,” he says.

Other businesses are boosting recyclability by using more clear plastic. Drinks bottles are made of easy-to-recycle PET, but if dye is added to them, the colors merge during recycling and produce a gray recyclate that is hard to then sell. “Recyclers tell me the clear PET bottle is worth twice as much to them,” Thompson says. Coca-Cola is rolling out clear bottles in North America made from 100 percent recycled PET. It’s already using clear bottles in Asia and Europe .

CHANGING THE MAKE-UP of plastics is one part of the equation. But there’s also a lot else that needs to be done to get more plastic reused. The converter industry—which takes recycled plastic and forms it into whatever a brand needs—will need new machinery to handle simplified plastic resins made from simple polymers. So scaling packaging that is close to 100 percent recyclable will take a few years. “By 2025, you will have a much more mature industry with respect to design for recyclability,” says Ten Bruggencate.

By then it will be vital to improve waste collection and recycling infrastructure so it can handle the waste. Recycling levels are very low in many parts of the world. In 2018, Europe collected just 32 percent of its 29 million metric tons of plastic waste for recycling, according to the European Environment Agency. That same year, the plastic recycling rate in the United States was less than 9 percent . This is particularly bad given the US and UK produce the most plastic waste per capita in the world.

Many brands have set their own targets to increase the use of recyclable plastics or recycled content. Brands are shifting to recyclable materials under pressure from consumers and government regulations. For example, the European Union aims for all plastic packaging to be reusable or recyclable by 2030 . It is also expected to set a target soon for plastic packaging to comprise 30 percent recycled material—a move supported by European plastics producers . This should strengthen the market for recycled plastic.

But to create a system in which plastics can be continually recycled, the very process of recycling is going to need an upgrade too. Typically plastics are recycled “mechanically”—they’re washed, ground down, and melted into granules, which are then used to make new plastic items. The chemical structure of the plastic doesn’t change significantly—it will still be made of the same polymers (so if you mechanically recycle PET, you produce more PET). However, the process causes the plastic’s polymers to degrade and lose strength. This means plastic can only be mechanically recycled a few times.

To truly be used over and over, plastic would need to go through chemical processing to convert it into basic chemical building blocks, from which different plastic types can be made. Such chemical recycling is possible, but still relatively new. “The technology is there—we just need to make sure it’s bulletproof,” says Ten Bruggencate.

That said, he thinks that mechanical recycling should always be prioritized, because “that’s the easiest thing you can do”—only when a plastic can’t be mechanically recycled should it be chemically recycled. But the benefits could be big. The production of brand-new plastic and its conversion to specific plastic types is responsible for 80 percent of plastic’s life-cycle emissions . Avoiding making virgin plastics from fossil fuels will therefore be key for the plastics industry to reduce its carbon emissions and reach net zero, Ten Bruggencate says.

Plastics producers are spending billions on researching these chemical recycling technologies. Members of Plastics Europe, a trade association of plastics manufacturers, have planned investments in chemical recycling technologies and infrastructure of €7.2 billion up to 2030.

The European Environment Agency says that chemical recycling offers potential new ways of recycling products that are difficult to recycle mechanically—including plastics mixed with other materials or types of plastics, or which are contaminated by hazardous chemicals. However, it notes that there’s little knowledge about the impacts of chemical recycling on the environment—both in terms of the energy needed to run it and the waste products it produces.

“If chemical recycling is to become a more widely used technology, it will be important to explore the environmental and climate implications and risks as well as the financial costs in more detail, to determine whether there is an overall benefit to this type of recycling,” the agency said in a 2021 report .

JIM PALARDY OF PEW is hopeful that plastic waste can be reduced to a trickle within 20 years. His report found that it’s possible to cut all plastic waste flowing into the ocean by 80 percent in the next 20 years using existing solutions and technologies. “The most important solutions really aren’t rocket science,” Palardy says. As well as better waste management and recycling, hitting this reduction would require making sure that all the plastics we do need are recyclable, avoiding single-use products whenever possible, and replacing plastics with paper and compostable materials—or other materials which are easier to reuse or recycle.

So those substitute materials—the algae and fungi containers and paper bottles—will have some role to play. But with substitutes, the devil is in the detail to ensure that they don’t create new problems. Paper will need to come from sustainably managed forests, and the necessary waste facilities are needed to deal with substitutes that have to be industrially composted.

Then there’s the risk of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Substitute plastic with glass, for example, and you increase transport emissions, because heavier products require more fuel to move. But if the glass could be transported using renewable energy sources, “the maths changes in a big way,” Palardy says.

One of the most important solutions, though, is to get rid of superfluous plastic altogether. There are many opportunities to do this. Selling shampoo in solid bars removes the need for a plastic liquid container. Another easy win is to use stand-up flexible plastic pouches for liquids. These use 60 percent less plastic than rigid plastic bottles. But although this offers huge savings in plastics and carbon emissions, companies are shifting to pouches “very, very slowly,” says Ten Bruggencate.

Overall, making the changes necessary to stem 80 percent of plastic pollution entering the ocean by 2040 is possible, says Palardy. “It’s not going to be easy. But we know how to do it.” As for the remaining 20 percent, “there are a lot of people working on this problem—and so that really does give me hope,” he says.

Reaching net zero emissions by 2050 will require innovative solutions at a global scale. In this series, in partnership with the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative, WIRED highlights individuals and communities working to solve some of our most pressing environmental challenges. It’s produced in partnership with Rolex but all content is editorially independent. Find out more .

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More From Forbes

Solving the plastic problem.

It was my great pleasure to attend Circularity 19  -- the largest circular economy conference in North America -- held last week in Minneapolis. The two and a half days I spent in Minnesota offered me the chance to speak with some smart and inspirational entrepreneurs, ask questions to executives at SABIC, Dow, General Mills, Apple, and 3M about what large companies are doing to move toward a sustainability, and learn about everything from clothing recycling to regenerative agriculture.

Many people at the conference were talking about plastic – arguably the most important material in today's consumer economy. Plastic is a modern wonder – lightweight, flexible, and tough – perfect for holding everything from carbonated drinks to frozen dinners to houseplants. The big problem is the waste created after its use – a problem I mentioned in the article Feeding the World With Plastic .

According to one of the conference speakers from the National Geographic Society, nine million tons of used plastic finds its way to the ocean every year, collecting into enormous floating islands, being eaten by ocean animals, and breaking down into microparticles that find their way into our food.

Plastic pollution on a beach in Ghana.

By the year 2050, humans will have manufactured 50 billion tons worth of plastic – most of it only used a single time before being discarded. Only a small proportion of the plastic will be recycled, a proportion that may be getting smaller now that China halted imports of waste plastics .

Because of the negative effects on the natural world, plastics are a big concern of environmental groups, and I was surprised to hear that none other than World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has researchers working on the issue. The WWF sent a team to the Circularity conference, and I got the chance to speak with one of the members, Ms. Alix Grabowski, who serves as the WWF’s Lead Specialist for Sustainability R&D.

Even though Ms. Grabowski’s specialty is bioplastics, I was surprised and happy to hear her say “Just because something says ‘bio’ doesn’t mean it is good for the environment.” She emphasized to me that understanding the system consequences of an entire value chain must be taken into consideration when talking about sustainability and circularity.

This systems perspective is formalized across WWF programs like the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (BFA) and the Cascading Materials Vision . The essence of these programs is to find opportunities to continuously improve the process of materials sourcing and product and packaging design to create plastic consumption efficiencies that cascade through the consumer value chain.

Real world examples of the operationalization of BFA and the Cascading Materials Vision are as numerous as they are impressive.

For instance, as a result of the WWF program, Ford found a way to use recycled materials and bioplastics to create lightweight automobile trim material. This initiative not only reduces the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with mining hydrocarbons and refining them into plastic, but also decreases GHG emissions due to the cars’ higher fuel efficiency.  Another excellent case is the development of Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle containers – which use plant-based plastics.

I also enjoyed meeting the founding team of a materials company based in Israel, UBQ Materials , and their executive team. UBQ, whose founding board member is also the founder of Sabra Hummus, manufactures a novel bio-based plastic material that uses raw food and organic waste as its primary feedstock.

Team UBQ's booth at the Circularity 19 Conference. From left to right, Christopher Sveen ... [+] (Sustainability Officer), Sophie Tuviahu (Sales Manager), Jack (Tato) Bigio (CEO & Co-founder)

UBQ’s process take household garbage and, through a patented conversion process, turns it into fully functional material that can be used in the manufacturing of durable products – such as deck material – and molded and extruded plastic parts – such as garbage cans or plastic pipes.

What’s more, UBQ’s team told me that their plastic products actually serve to permanently sequester carbon emissions – creating a sustainable thermoplastic material that is not just low-carbon or carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative.

The company is now working in expanding its operations commercial operations in the USA and in Europe.

The last company that caught my eye was SABIC – Saudi Basic Industries Company – the third largest chemical company in the world that recently announced it would be acquired by oil giant Saudi Aramco .

The reason SABIC caught my eye is that I know they have a joint venture with an English firm called Plastic Energy to create a "chemical recycling" plant in the Netherlands that will turn plastic from a linear economic source of waste to a circular economic renewable resource.

The essence of the chemical recycling of plastic is different from the "mechanical recycling" that most people know. Mechanical recycling is the process of cleaning, chopping, and melting down of used plastic to create uniform plastic pellets that can be melted down with virgin plastic and reformed into a new plastic good.

Chemical recycling through a process known as pyrolysis heats plastic under pressure in an anaerobic environment in a way that breaks the plastic down into its component hydrocarbons. The result of this process is plastic feedstock – undistinguishable from that coming out of a refinery – ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, and several other useful industrial products.

In a sense, chemical recycling would be the equivalent to taking used paper and, rather than making cardboard out of it, turning it back into raw timber.

Pyrolysis is not a new technology – Chinese firms have converted used car tires to fuel and kerosene for years – but the process can be dirty and difficult when different types of plastics are mixed together. There were several good programs at the conference dealing with chemical recycling, and there are some big names in the chemicals business, including SABIC and Dow, that are looking at ways to improve the commercial potential of pyrolysis.

Even though plastic was a topic on many people’s lips during the conference, I also learned about some fascinating innovations in the recycling of paper and fabric fibers. I’ll cover those discussions in my next article.

I was happy to attend this conference, talking to people who know, as I do, that the only way to build and maintain intergenerational wealth during this century will be by investing in a new paradigm. Intelligent investors take note .

Erik Kobayashi-Solomon

Green Matters

The Most Effective Solutions to the Microplastic Crisis

Oct. 1 2021, Published 2:52 p.m. ET

The demand for plastic is greater than it has ever been, and the amount of plastic waste we create has continued to increase exponentially. Microplastics, the synthetic smithereens that result from plastic “breaking down” over time, might be minuscule, but they also present one of humanity's biggest problems. Microplastics have made their way into our rainwater, our soil, our food, and our bodies, but microplastic solutions might already exist. The question is, will they be enough?

Microplastics are everywhere.

When plastic-based products break down, they do not biodegrade — instead, they break down into microplastics, which are the size of a sesame seed or smaller . They are made of numerous different toxic chemical components, making them capable of poisoning everything they touch. Worst of all? They are literally everywhere.

According to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) , microplastics have become such a ubiquitous part of our environment that they are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and deep within our organ tissues. They have been found in the deepest oceans, trapped in Arctic snow, and in the soil of all seven continents. To be quite frank, the situation is nearly out of control.

Banning certain microplastics might work, but only if companies get on board.

In 2020, the European Union (EU) released a sweeping ban on microplastics which covered about 90 percent of all plastic pollutants. According to The Guardian , the main goal of this ban was to cut plastic pollution by about 400,000 tons over the intervening two decades. On average, about 36,000 tons of microplastic fibers and fragments a year would no longer be permitted to be “intentionally added” to products.

At the same time, plastic microbeads in cosmetics, shaving foam, shower gel, and toothpaste would also be banned. Unfortunately according to EEB, there were some exclusions that made the current bannings somewhat ineffective. Plastic often takes many years to produce, so some regulations won’t take effect until after 2022 — quite a long time for such an exponentially growing problem.

The pace of regulation is slowed further by standard government red tape and bureaucratic nonsense. This means that, based on current projections, microplastic pollution might not be cut in half until 2028 or 2030, before which time the plastic crisis will only have gotten worse.

On top of all this, existing bans in other countries have proven similarly ineffective in terms of getting companies to “play ball,” as it were. For example, clothing made with recycled, synthetic, plastic-based fibers is still being produced, and little effort is being made to prevent microplastic generation through use and washing over time.

Plastic microfiber filtration could help scoop up the problem at home.

The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that approximately 35 percent of all ocean microplastic comes from people washing their clothing. Synthetic textiles like fleece and other plastic-based materials break off as they tumble through our washing machines and end up as plastic microfibers , which then flow into the water table.

The solution to this particular problem could be in developing house-based filtration systems capable of capturing these microplastics before they make their way into the sewer. If that works, such technology could be used to solve other "particulate" problems and be repurposed as a means to remove other types of microplastics from waterways the world over. As it happens, this technology does exist in some form or another.

One household solution to control plastic microfibers is the Cora Ball , an oddly shaped, recycled plastic ball that goes directly into your washing machine and captures around 26 percent of sewer-bound microfibers. Another, the Guppyfriend, is a mesh bag you can use to machine wash synthetic fabrics. The Guppyfriend prevents plastic microfiber shedding by a factor of 75 to 86 percent by accumulating the microfibers in the corners of the bag, where they can be scraped off and disposed of properly.

These are just two of the various household gadgets that can minimize the problem. Meanwhile, widespread adoption of existing filtration systems that are capable of removing all microfibers is still slow.

Making such technology affordable for the average consumer and getting appliance companies to include this type of technology in every one of their products may prove difficult. Without legislation that demands that people replace their current appliances with “anti-plastic” ones, widespread adoption might also prove difficult. We've seen it before, with Energy Star appliances .

Magnets could be employed to attract microplastics.

In 2019, the Google Science Fair winner was 18-year-old Fionn Ferreira, of West Cork, Ireland. His experiment proved that using magnetite powder, a type of iron oxide, could be used to clean up oil spills.

However, the same methodology of adding oil and eventually magnetite powder to a suspension of known microplastics created a resultant microplastic ferro-fluid, which could then be removed using strong magnets. The only thing Ferriera hasn’t sorted out yet is how to scale the experiment to the massive levels needed to clean up microplastics from large bodies of water. Still, he believes it is possible.

Mass cleanups may be our best solution.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a big problem all its own, and we can only solve that problem by cleaning things up before it gets any worse. Once that plastic becomes microplastic, it becomes nearly impossible to clean up. Thus, the solution could be removing plastic from the ocean before it becomes micro in the first place. Charities and environmental groups are already working to fix the problem as best they can.

According to L’Aquilla Active , ocean cleanups are the best way to prevent more microplastics from making their way into our planet’s waterways. The Ocean Cleanup Project and other organizations already removed countless tons of garbage from our oceans and have even revealed some exciting new technological innovations that might make the cleanup even easier. The Interceptor , a solar-powered, clean-burning, autonomous catamaran-like machine, was created by Ocean Cleanup CEO Boyan Slat.

The machine is designed to be operated remotely 24/7 and is equipped with lithium-ion batteries. It works by moving down rivers (which feed into oceans) and scooping up plastic into its net, whilst allowing fish and other wildlife to pass through unharmed. The plastic is then sent to onboard conveyor belts and into six onboard dumpsters, which are collectively capable of collecting up to 100,000 kilograms of trash per day.

It's a great start, even if it cannot specifically solve the microplastic problem just yet.

Scientists Successfully Use Bacteria to Extract Microplastics From Water

The Ocean Cleanup Is Now Cleaning Up Rivers With the "Interceptor"

Biodegradable Microbeads Could Change The Way Our Cosmetics Impact The Planet

Latest What Are Microplastics? News and Updates

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how to solve the problem of plastic

Science is Knowledge

Solving Microplastic Pollution Means Reducing, Recycling—and Fundamental Rethinking

New practices, and new chemistries, are needed to end the scourge

Solving Microplastic Pollution Means Reducing, Recycling&mdash;and Fundamental Rethinking

This is the third of a three-part series that examines our growing understanding of the scope and impacts of microplastics pollution.

At several locations around London last winter and spring, researchers stalked the streets counting the number of discarded plastic water bottles they encountered, as if tallying species across a coral reef.

Their aim was to see if a new initiative to enlist businesses where people can refill empty bottles with tap water was making a dent in the trash littering the pavement, says marine biologist Heather Koldewey, who oversaw the research. Bottled water use has doubled in the U.K. in the past 15 years. And notably, plastic bottles are abundant along the banks of the River Thames, which carries them out to sea as they gradually break down into ever smaller fragments, tainting the river and the ocean with microplastics that can invade every level of the food chain.

Scientists have found these tiny bits of degraded plastic—along with fibers shed from synthetic fabric, and microbeads from cosmetics—lurking throughout the oceans, lakes, soil and even the air . Creatures from plankton to earthworms to humans are eating them, posing a potentially serious health threat to animals and ecosystems. The problem is only expected to balloon as plastic production increases exponentially—from a mere two million metric tons annually in 1950 to more than 300 million metric tons today, and a projected 33 billion metric tons each year by 2050.

how to solve the problem of plastic

To get the microplastics problem under control, the world has to take three primary steps, those who study the issue say. In the short term society needs to significantly curtail unnecessary single-use plastic items such as water bottles, plastic shopping bags, straws and utensils. In the medium term governments need to strengthen garbage collection and recycling systems to prevent waste from leaking into the environment between the trash can and the landfill, and to improve recycling rates. In the long run scientists need to devise ways to break plastic down into its most basic units, which can be rebuilt into new plastics or other materials. “There’s definitely no single solution,” says Koldewey, of the Zoological Society of London and a National Geographic Fellow.


An attractive, low-hanging target for tackling microplastic pollution is the drink bottles, utensils and bags that are called single-use plastics. Because they are used for convenience, not necessity, they are easier to do without, and the polymers used to make them are among the most commonly produced and found in the environment. Bans are becoming an increasingly popular way of curtailing their use, and limited evidence indicates they do reduce debris. But as Koldewey and others point out, governments that impose bans need to consider: whether such measures are cost-effective; what the environmental impacts of alternative materials might be; and what roadblocks such as, in the case of bottled water, a lack of places to fill up a reusable bottle might hamper the effectiveness of a ban.

Koldewey’s own campaign to reduce the use of bottled water in London, called #OneLess, studied possible locations for placing refilling kiosks that would get the most use, such as public transportation hubs. The group also conducted surveys that found most residents would prefer to get water from the tap but were uncomfortable asking stores or restaurants for a free refill. The initiative to sign up businesses that would allow people to refill their bottles was aimed at overcoming that reluctance. Addressing such potential barriers is crucial to changing people’s habits, Koldewey says.

how to solve the problem of plastic

Reducing single-use plastics will help the environment because the packaging sector more broadly is the biggest user of plastic polymers. But plastic, including some of the same polymers found in single-use packaging, is also used in construction, electronics and fabrics. The latter are the source of microfibers, which are proving to be one of the most ubiquitous forms of microplastic pollution. Scientists are concerned that focusing on single-use plastics will obscure more systemic issues around plastic that need to be addressed. “It’s a super-useful first step,” says Martin Wagner, an ecotoxicologist at Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “What I’m afraid of is that that will be it.”

His worry is well founded. In Europe only 30 percent of plastic is recycled, whereas in the U.S. it is a measly 9 percent. “Our waste management systems are good, our use of them is pretty lousy,” Koldewey says. The need to expand recycling capacity in places like the U.S. is becoming acute now that China—which has imported 45 percent of all plastic waste intended for recycling since 1992—has closed its doors, leaving many Western countries with nowhere but the landfill to ship their discarded plastic.

One key aspect of improving recycling, some experts say, is designing products so they are easier to recycle. Plastic is typically recycled by shredding it, melting it down and molding it into new plastics. But other chemicals added to improve product flexibility or durability, or to simply add color, make it difficult to recycle and reduce the quality of recycled plastics. “We’re taking some of what are potentially our most recyclable polymers and rendering them unrecyclable because of inadequate or inappropriate thought at the design stage,” says Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth. As an example of a potential remedy, he cites Japan, where all polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used in plastic bottles, is transparent. Clear PET is much easier to recycle than when coloring is added in. “It’s possible to do it,” he says.


Curtailing the use of plastic and improving recycling and waste systems would put a major dent in the plastics entering the environment, but not every plastic is easily recyclable and some will still likely make their way into rivers, soil and seas. In the long term some scientists think changing the very nature of the material and the methods of recycling it could be the ultimate solution to the plastic problem. “We need a much more fundamental change in our approach,” Wagner says.

For years materials scientists have been trying to create plastics that will biodegrade. Today plastic that is labeled biodegradable can actually only be broken down in specialized facilities that heat it to high temperatures. “In an aquatic environment, in your backyard compost pile, that’s not going anywhere,” says Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

There is a fundamental tension to creating truly biodegradable plastic, because a polymer that will completely degrade into carbon, oxygen and other elements in a lake or soil would not be particularly useful as packaging, say for keeping food on a shelf for months. “There’s a central problem around what we want versus what’s realistic,” says Andrew Dove, a chemist at the University of Birmingham. Thompson thinks biodegradable plastic may need to be confined to products only needed for a short time that are then discarded, such as burger wrappers at sports stadiums or utensils at fast-food restaurants.

What Dove and a growing number of materials scientists envision to reshape our relationship with all plastics is to move from physically recycling plastics by grinding them up to chemically dismantling them to weed out all the impurities that taint recycled plastic. Such a method would take a PET bottle, for example, and break it down into its most basic molecules, separating out added chemicals to provide the building blocks to remake virgin polymers. In this way plastic would become its own perpetual raw material, the way glass and paper are (although the latter are physically ground up, not just chemically broken down). “With some plastics, there’s no reason why you can’t infinitely recycle,” Dove says. “People just haven’t looked at it. It’s not been considered something that’s important.”

For the polymers that cannot be unraveled into their most basic molecules, Dove thinks it should be possible to at least chemically break them up into other small molecules that could be used for different purposes, such as fuel or pharmaceuticals. Ideally, scientists would devise chemical reactions that did not require too many harsh compounds and are not too expensive. That would give value to the plastic waste that currently has no, or very little, value. Currently, “it’s much cheaper to burn them or to throw them away in landfills, and that’s the core of the issue,” Wagner says.

Making discarded plastic valuable could also provide incentive for cleaning up the plastic waste already in the environment. “If we can create something high-value from cheap plastic waste, there might be an economic argument to go and dredge this out of the ocean,” Dove says. “We’re a long way from that, but that’s what we’d like to achieve.”

A few scientists have already begun to look at ways to clean up some of the microplastic waste, which could remain in the environment for at least several hundred years. Cleanup is difficult because the plastic particles are small and varied in nature, and the ecosystems in which they are embedded are vast. Researchers have found enzymes and bacteria that can break down certain types of plastic, but they need to figure out how these might be deployed without any potential negative side effects, such as producing greenhouse gases. Agroecologist Esperanza Huerta Lwanga, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the College of the Southern Frontier in Mexico, for example, hopes to test whether earthworms that possess plastic-munching bacteria in their guts might be able to remediate soil littered with plastic from the burning of trash.

While those methods are being developed, cutting off the flow of plastic is key. Doable steps need to be taken now. “The bottom line,” Thompson says, “really is that all of this [pollution] is avoidable.”

Part 1: Earth Has a Hidden Plastic Problem—Scientists Are Hunting It Down

Part 2: From Fish to Humans, a Microplastic Invasion May Be Taking a Toll

how to solve the problem of plastic



Andrea Thompson , an associate editor at Scientific American , covers sustainability.  Follow Andrea Thompson on Twitter  Credit: Nick Higgins

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This Region Has the Fewest Electric Vehicles. Here’s Why.

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The Lakota named the Badlands, calling the sharp, stark canyons and buttes “mako sica.” Centuries later, French-Canadian trappers and traders likewise chronicled “les mauvaises terres a traveser” or “bad lands to travel across.”

Interstate 94 has tamed the former Dakota Territory, turning the journey into a 75-mph blur of chasms and color, but it remains inhospitable to those driving electric vehicles. Across western North Dakota, there are far more oil pump jacks than charging stations. Bison outnumber EVs.

Change is coming, albeit slower than in the rest of the country. With the notable exception of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, the shift to EVs across the Upper Midwest and Great Plains lags compared with other regions nationwide.

Concerns over range and the effects of sub-zero weather on battery life are higher on the vast northern prairies, areas of which have the fewest charging stations in the country. Political debates over ethanol, emission standards and market forces also envelop the region.

For EV advocates, the numbers foretell a long road ahead.

The most recent federal data on EV adoption rates shows that North Dakota (roughly 400 vehicles), Wyoming (500) and South Dakota (700) have the fewest EV registrations in the nation. The Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska are among the states with the lowest per capita ownership and market share of EVs.

Charging stations, seen as a key piece of widespread electrification, are scarce in the region as well, with North Dakota and South Dakota having the lowest number of stations in the contiguous United States.

More stations are on the way. The infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed in 2021 mandated that states develop plans for a charging network to qualify for federal funds. North Dakota, for example, has proposed stations every 50 miles along Interstates 94 and 29.

For Destiny Wolf, a former nurse turned fossil preparator, in Dickinson, North Dakota, every charging station is welcome. Wolf and her husband, Craig Wolf, own two of the 18 EVs in Stark County, which has a population of 33,000 over 1,300 square miles, an area larger than Rhode Island.

Wolf loves her Teslas and advocates for electric vehicles, but she acknowledges the challenges in her area.

EV charging

Expect More EV Charging Stations as States Tap into Federal Dollars

Federal officials have approved every state’s plan to expand electric vehicle charging networks.

While the region benefits from the lowest electric rates in the nation, making the EVs even more cost effective than they are in California, other factors outweigh the savings . Travel times grow as cold weather drains battery life, requiring additional carefully plotted charging stops along the state’s sparsely equipped network.

It wasn’t until the past few months that EV drivers could traverse the state with access to fast chargers, Wolf said. For families with children in sports or other activities, “It’s not unheard of to drive 600 miles over a weekend to some rural community,” she said.

The number of EVs with ranges of 300 miles or more nearly tripled in 2022, growing from five to 14, the U.S. Department of Energy reported. But in North Dakota, that’s barely a one-way trip from Dickinson to Fargo.

The Wolfs keep a third vehicle, a 2015 Toyota Sienna, as a gas-powered backup.

Political Debates

Beyond the concerns over practicality, larger issues loom. North Dakota and other states in the region are top-10 producers of ethanol, a corn-based fuel that is blended with gasoline. Because as much as 40% of U.S. corn is used for ethanol, the states fear more EVs will have the ripple effects of a drop in ethanol demand on their agriculture economies.  

Automakers, EV proponents say, offer fewer models in the region , giving buyers fewer options if they wish to go electric. Tesla, for example, has no showrooms along the northern tier between the Twin Cities and Boise, Idaho.

The rural-urban and red-blue divides in the region also enter the debate over the push toward EVs.

“It’s been kind of … unfortunate that electric cars have become caught up to some extent in kind of the partisan divide and the culture wars,” said Marc Geller, a board member and spokesperson for the Electric Vehicle Association, which promotes EVs.

But Minnesota, North Dakota’s eastern neighbor, is an outlier in the region.

In 2021, Minnesota became the only Midwestern state to adopt California’s stricter emission standards, including its mandate that auto dealers offer more zero-emission vehicles.

In Minnesota, more than 83% of the state’s 15,000-plus electric vehicles were registered in the seven-county Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area in 2021, the most recent year for nationwide data. The charging network in Minnesota dwarfs its neighbors, with 594 stations statewide, ranging from tiny southern farming communities such as Sherburn (population 1,032) to a Tesla Supercharger at a remote north woods lodge along the Canadian border.

Yet Minnesota still struggles with its electric vehicle future.

Minnesota’s “clean cars” plan is set to take effect in 2024. But in August, California upped the ante: It approved new rules requiring all new cars sold in the state to be either electric or hydrogen powered by 2035. Minnesota and other states must choose whether to follow those more stringent auto sales rules or observe federal standards, which don’t include a zero-emissions deadline. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has until 2026 to decide whether the state should follow California again.

Opposition to the original California standards united auto dealers, farmers and conservative politicians. The new rules will be even a tougher sell.

“If I have to stock electric and low-emission vehicles, it will reduce my capacity to stock the trucks and SUVs my customers want,” wrote Steve Whitaker, owner of car dealership Whitaker Buick GMC in Forest Lake, Minnesota, in a seven-page public comment filing. “Reducing my stock of SUVs and trucks to take the required electric vehicles will put my business in a tenuous financial position.”

EV proponents contend the adoption of EVs in the region is hindered because dealers limit the models available.

Trucks and other vehicles pass a construction zone on Highway 50 in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.

As Electric Vehicles Shrink Gas Tax Revenue, More States May Tax Mileage

This year, legislators in at least eight states debated mileage taxes on drivers of electric vehicles.

According to the Sierra Club, Minnesota dealers offer only about half of the available EV models. “Clean Cars MN will help get Minnesota and neighboring Upper Midwest states out of the EV desert. There’s no reluctance, there’s a lack of consumer choice,” the Sierra Club said in a statement to Stateline .

Farm organizations, especially corn growers, argue the move to electric vehicles will depress crop prices by reducing the demand for ethanol-blended fuels. Industry groups, such as the Renewable Fuel Association, argue that biofuels can be more climate friendly than electric. Minnesota is the nation’s fifth-leading producer of ethanol.

Decisions Ahead

Across the region, difficult political decisions lie ahead as sales accelerate and states build out their EV policies.

Some incentivize EV ownership with state rebates or tax credits, on top of those offered by the federal government. Kansas, for example, gives a $2,500 tax credit to EV buyers. In Minnesota, the Democratic-controlled legislature is considering $2,500 rebates for EV purchases. It also offers some EV buyers a one-time toll pass credit. In the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska, meanwhile, incentives favor development of the ethanol/biofuels industry over boosting EV sales.

The differences also arise in how states will use their shares of the $7.5 billion in federal funds set aside for charging infrastructure. Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming — all large, rural states with long stretches of remote highways — joined in a comment to federal regulators, noting the difficulties complying with the requirements, E&E News reported .

Wyoming drew a line in the high prairie sand, offering its own plan for placing charging stations in tourism areas outside the federal guidelines that prioritize interstates. “The State will not proceed if our plan is not approved,” it said. For Geller, of the Electric Vehicle Association, education is vital as state policies evolve. Technology is rapidly addressing the range and weather-related issues that rural, northern auto buyers cite as their chief concerns about EVs . At-home chargers, he said, are often underplayed in the discussion and make rural ownership more practical, often allowing owners to charge at non-peak overnight rates. The more people drive EVs, the more they benefit, Geller said.  

But even in the region’s urban areas, there’s caution about following California too closely.

“I think we need to get to a point first where Minnesotans have the choices to buy electric vehicle options and also that we have the infrastructure to support those choices,” state Rep. Jamie Long, a Democrat from an affluent Minneapolis district, told MinnPost . “I think in the next few years, that’s where I want my focus to be, is getting options for Minnesotans for new vehicle purchases.”

In North Dakota, where 15 of the state’s 53 counties do not have even one electric vehicle registered, Wolf wants the market to drive EV development, pushing car makers to respond to consumer needs.

Living near the oil-rich Bakken, she’s also a proponent of a stable oil market and U.S. energy independence. EVs are part of the picture, she said, but mandates are not the answer.

“The infrastructure isn’t here … the government is trying to put the cart before the horse,” the two-Tesla owner said. The couple puts more than 20,000 miles per year on their EVs and “maybe” 3,000-5,000 miles on the gas-powered minivan.

“I love my car, but I’m a proponent of the free market.” 

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How To Solve the Mounting Problem of Plastic Waste? Focus on Its Chemical Roots

Doe funding pairs nrel with academic, nonprofit, and industry scientists to transform how we create and recycle plastic.

A researcher works with scientific UV light equipment in a lab.

Plastic pollution is a recognized global challenge. According to Our World in Data , since 1950, only 9% of the roughly 5.8 billion tons of plastic waste has been recycled. Experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish by mass in the ocean by 2050.

Water bottles

Learn About Our Vision

A circular economy for energy materials reduces waste and preserves resources by designing materials and products with reuse, recycling, and upcycling in mind from the start.

To help make a dent in that immense plastic footprint, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently awarded National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers more than $4 million to spur innovations in plastic. The funding adds to NREL’s already multi-million-dollar investment from DOE for leading BOTTLE—the Bio-Optimized Technologies to keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment Consortium—which brings together research partners to discover new chemical upcycling strategies for today's plastics and redesigning tomorrow's plastics to be recyclable-by-design. BOTTLE is jointly funded by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office and Advanced Manufacturing Office.

“To help mitigate the proliferation of plastics in the environment, we have to develop cost-effective and more efficient plastic recycling and upcycling methods,” said Adam Bratis, associate laboratory director for NREL’s Bioenergy Science and Technology research. “NREL is proud to be working with such a strong team of research partners to help address this global challenge.”

NREL will apply the new funding to explore solutions to two DOE topic areas. The first topic focuses on developing energy-efficient recycling technologies to deconstruct plastic waste into intermediates that can be upgraded into higher-value products. The second leverages the capabilities of BOTTLE to resolve challenges in plastic waste.

Novel Methods for Deconstructing and Upcycling Existing Plastic Waste

Upcycling used pet clothing and bottles with the volcat process to create new pet.

To demonstrate a scalable, economical process to recycle polyester, or PET (polyethylene terephthalate), researchers will explore and optimize IBM Research’s VolCat chemical recycling process of catalyzed depolymerization, product purification, and recovery. PET is commonly used in single-use beverage bottles, carpets, and clothing, some of which are difficult to recycle. By demonstrating an effective method for repurposing such low-quality plastic waste, the team may stimulate new enterprises for creating higher-value plastic products from cheap, readily available materials.  

Participants: IBM Research (Project Lead), NREL, Unifi Manufacturing, Under Armour, Milliken & Company, Husky, Oklahoma State University, and Niagara Beverages

Diverting foam waste from landfills through a hybrid chemical-biological upcycling process

To help divert plastic foam from the landfill and save energy in manufacturing, researchers will develop a process to convert waste polyurethane foam into high-quality polyols (key components for producing new furniture and bedding foams) and diamines (intermediates for nylon and high-performance plastics). The team’s hybrid process, which leverages both chemical and biological techniques to break down, purify, and upcycle waste polyurethane, could potentially increase reclamation rates of polyurethane foams, a stepping-stone for creating new, recyclable products with a much smaller energy footprint.

Participants: Battelle (Project Lead), NREL, Ginkgo Bioworks, Allonnia, Whirlpool, BASF, Faurecia, and Steelcase

BOTTLE Consortium Collaborations To Tackle Challenges in Plastic Waste

Unlocking the environmental and economic benefits of recycled carbon fiber.

A team of university, industry, and NREL researchers aims to show both the environmental and economic value of recycling carbon fiber composites (CFCs), an industry still in its infancy in the United States. CFCs exhibit superior properties and can reduce the weight of systems conventionally designed with metal. The researchers are targeting two long-standing obstacles to an economic recycling process: recovering the fiber and polymer present in CFCs—carbon fiber and plastic—and engineering a solution that is significantly cheaper and more energy efficient than simply synthesizing CFCs from virgin carbon fiber feedstock. To do this, they are leveraging novel catalysts to break down commercial polymer resins to help reclaim carbon fibers; high-performance recyclable resins to aid the reclamation of both fiber and resin; and the Tailored Universal Formable Feedstock process to create high-performance CFC composites from highly aligned chopped fibers.

Participants: University of Delaware (Project Lead), NREL, Colorado State University, Arkema, and Axiom

Transforming plastic waste into new biodegradable, recyclable plastics with caprolactones

Aiming to understand how renewable polymers or plastics can be broken down into reusable chemicals or produce minimal waste, a four-institution team will develop a method for creating new, advanced plastics from alkyl-caprolactones. Due to their physical properties, alkyl-caprolactones have the unique ability to form high-performance plastics that are also recyclable and biodegradable. Researchers will use NREL’s existing reductive catalytic fractionation process to produce biomass or lignin-derived monomers, while researching the plastic recycling effort through catalytic and other polymer decomposition methods. The project has the potential to not only divert waste from the landfill, but also open doors for manufacturing original products using a novel class of polyurethanes and thermoplastic elastomers.

Participants: University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (Project Lead), NREL, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and BASF

Designing biodegradable, low-cost alternatives to conventional plastic food packaging

A team of researchers will design and test polymers made from agricultural waste that can be upgraded into reliable, recyclable, and biodegradable food packaging. Low-density polyethylene is commonly used in most food packaging today, but polyethylene (PE) films are neither easily recyclable nor biodegradable. The team will synthesize a variety of biomass-based polyesters that are designed using machine learning tools. They will compare the properties of the biomass-based polyesters to conventional packaging films made with PE. Then, the team will demonstrate the properties of the materials by producing, and ultimately recycling, new food and liquid packaging plastics.

Participants: University of Wisconsin-Madison (Project Lead), NREL, Colorado State University, University of Oklahoma, Pyran, Amcor, and Stora Enso

Learn more about NREL’s bioenergy research , or visit the BOTTLE Consortium website to discover more efforts to innovate plastic recycling, upcycling, and manufacturing technologies.

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How to reduce plastic waste | 20 tips to save the planet.

Explore the role of plastic pollution in the destruction of the environment and discover 20 things you can personally do to reduce plastic waste.

Plastic waste is sorted through at recycling plant

By Rhiannon Wardle

We all know that plastic is a problem. Despite it having many positive qualities – cheap, easy to make, flexible and accessible – it’s becoming increasingly clear that plastic waste is out of control and causing huge damage to the environment. For example, 12 million tonnes of plastic are poured into the ocean every year , and scientists have recently discovered microplastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice. But what’s the solution?

In this article, we’ll discuss what plastic pollution is, what causes it, and why it’s detrimental to the planet and the health of living creatures. Then we’ll give 20 tips on how you can personally reduce the amount of plastic waste you create, from avoiding single-use plastics to putting pressure on manufacturers. 

What is plastic pollution?

So what exactly is plastic pollution ? Essentially, it’s the accumulation of synthetic plastic products in the environment that reaches an extent where it causes problems for wildlife habitats, ecosystems and human populations. 

Initially, plastic use was revolutionary. However, by the end of the 20th century, we were seeing plastic pollution span all kinds of environments, including the bottom of the ocean and high in the mountains. In our open step about alternatives to fossil-fuel-derived plastics , you can find some shocking statistics about plastic pollution.

In 2016, The World Economic Forum found that 78 million tonnes of plastic is produced annually, and only 14% is recycled, and 32% is leaked into the environment. Furthermore, they found that in 2014, the ratio of fish to plastic was 5:1. They predicted that by 2050 this ratio would be 1:1, so there would be as much plastic as fish. So clearly, this is pollution on an enormously detrimental scale. 

What are the causes of plastic pollution?

There are plenty of causes of plastic pollution, but we’ve detailed the most prominent causes below. Some of these causes are complicated to tackle, but having knowledge of them can help us make more informed decisions as we consume. 

Why plastic waste is damaging the planet

While this article will focus on what you can do individually to reduce plastic waste, it’s worth mentioning some of the ways that plastic is damaging the planet and those who live on it. For more detailed information, check out our complete guide to climate chang e here.

How can we reduce our plastic waste?

Now onto the most important part – how can we make a difference? Luckily there are several changes you can implement as an individual that can have a positive impact. However, it is worth mentioning that individual actions are not enough by themselves. 

In our interview with Professor Karl Williams at the University of Central Lancashire, he describes how legislation and policy are key to tackling global plastic pollution. This can be anything from laws about littering to waste shipment and waste management legislation.

So keep in mind, throughout these tips, that there are things beyond your control. You can, however, try to sway governments and politicians in your direction by emailing them, signing petitions and protesting. From there, governments can put pressure on manufacturers and corporations to make changes. 

Without further ado, here are 20 tips on how you can reduce plastic waste in your daily life: 

1. Recycle when possible (and do it properly)

Recycling, whenever you can, has a positive impact on the planet as it prevents too many plastics from ending up in landfills. Of course, recycling systems aren’t perfect, but recycling is still more productive than chucking everything in the same bin.

Different countries have different recycling systems and rules, but here are three rules that generally can be followed no matter where you are:

2. Avoid single-use plastics

Single-use plastic items are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to plastic pollution. You might find it harder than you’d think to stay away from them, but noticing how prevalent they are in daily life is a good first step. 

Some common examples that contain single-use plastic include plastic-wrapped vegetables in supermarkets, wet wipes, cotton buds, plastic cutlery, coffee cups, straws, sanitary products and cigarettes. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives if you look for them.

3. Use alternative packaging 

If you own a small business, it can really make a difference if you look for alternative packaging options. Whether you own a cafe or have a small business on Etsy, you could try more sustainable packaging options, including paper and cardboard. If you work in the food industry, you might be interested in our Introduction to Sustainable Practices in Food Service course by International Culinary Studio.

Sometimes, we do need packaging that at least emulates plastic in order to protect products, particularly when it comes to food. Bioplastics are plastics made from renewable, bio-based materials like cellulose, and they have the potential to biodegrade more quickly than normal plastics.

4. Do a trash audit

A trash audit is basically where you take a look at your rubbish and track what you’re throwing away frequently. Often, we throw things away without a second thought, so this is a great way of understanding exactly how much waste we create. A trash audit also allows us to find substitutes for our most regularly discarded items.

For example, if you find a lot of coffee cups in the trash, you know it’s time to buy a reusable cup. Alternatively, if you have a lot of crisp packets, consider buying a bigger packet next time and finding packaging that’s recyclable. Or, you could look into a scheme like Terracycle that helps you recycle crisp packets. 

5. Find reusable options 

We touched on this in our previous points about single-use plastics, but finding reusable alternatives is the best way to ensure that you stop using so many single-use plastic items. These don’t have to be fancy bamboo alternatives either – even placing regular metal cutlery in your bag, or taking an old plastic water bottle with you to work will suffice.

There are even alternative options to things like clingfilm – learn to make your own zero-waste bio-based clingfilm in our open step. To learn more about making sustainable choices, join our Exploring Sustainable Living and Loving with Mogli course by Tommy Hilfiger.

6. Grow your own food

As we mentioned earlier, lots of vegetables and fruits are covered in plastics at the supermarket. To avoid this problem entirely whilst also learning to be more self-sufficient, why not try growing your own food? With help from our course How to Grow Healthy Plants by Gardeners World Magazine, you’ll be growing your own herbs and veggies in no time.

7. Buy from local markets and low-waste shops

If you don’t quite have the time and energy to grow your own food, consider buying food from local markets and low-waste shops instead. Depending on the country you live in, buying from markets can be either more or less expensive than supermarkets – so it’s a good idea to do some research beforehand and find the best option for you. 

Low-waste shops are notably more expensive, but they can be a great option for dried goods such as pasta, rice, pulses and nuts. You usually bring your own containers with you and fill them as needed – no waste created! You can learn more about tackling food waste in our course, From Waste to Value: How to Tackle Food Waste .

8. Bake your own bread

Similarly to growing your own food, why not try baking your own bread and other baked goods? This is not only a fun and rewarding activity, but it will reduce the amount of plastic-wrapped baked goods and bread that you buy at the shop. To get started, take a look at our Learn How to Bake Sourdough with BBC Good Food course. 

9. Make your own cleaning and cosmetic products in jars

It’s so easy to get sucked into the worlds of cleaning and cosmetic products, but did you know that many of them use extremely simple ingredients and can be made at home? This can not only reduce your use of plastic but is also better for the environment as you’ll be using less harmful chemicals. 

Alternatively, you might want to buy products in bar form or in metal packaging – but we thought we’d demonstrate just how simple it is to make some products below:

All-purpose cleaner

10. Switch up your laundry routine

There are plenty of ways you can make your laundry routine more eco-friendly and plastic-free. First of all, detergent often comes in plastic bottles or plastic sachets, so try to go for a zero-waste detergent. You could even try a laundry egg – recyclable and durable eggs that contain plastic-free pellets that both clean and soften your clothes. What’s not to like?

Besides detergent, consider making a homemade stain remover and buying a microfibre washing bag to prevent microplastics from shedding off your clothes. Washing clothes on cold will also make them last longer, preventing plastic waste in the form of clothing and reducing your carbon footprint .

11. Say no to extras when ordering a takeaway

This is such a simple fix that you may not think of it initially. When you order a takeaway, ensure that you click to say that you don’t want any added cutlery. You can even write a note asking for as little extra plastic as possible. 

In addition to this, it’s worth saving takeaways for special occasions if you can help it. Because they have to be packaged up and sent to you, there is always a lot of packaging involved that wouldn’t be created if you cooked or went out to the restaurant instead.

12. Choose clothes made from sustainable or recycled materials

In our how sustainable is the fashion industry blog, we discuss how fast fashion is one of the biggest polluters in the world . Part of the reason for this is because so many clothes from fast fashion brands are made from plastics: polyester, nylon, acrylic. 

So when masses of clothes go to landfills after being worn once or twice, they don’t biodegrade for hundreds of years. Instead, if you want to buy new clothes, continue buying garments made from sustainable or recycled materials. To find out more about your options, you can check out our sustainable fabrics guide . 

13. Shop in bulk

Shopping in bulk is where you do one very big shop and pick up all the essentials you need, rather than buying smaller amounts of ingredients on a regular basis. Not only can you save money by choosing to shop this way, but you also use a lot less packaging and single-use plastics.

14. Stop buying water

It’s so easy to buy a bottle of water when you feel thirsty – and we know that your health and staying hydrated are very important. However, in the UK, we throw away 7.7 billion plastic water bottles a year , despite having great quality drinking water. 

You can beat the urge to buy a plastic water bottle by remembering to take a refillable water bottle with you everywhere. Even if you forget to fill it up before you leave, most cafes will be happy to fill it up for you. This is an area where you can really make a difference with minimal effort.

15. Buy second-hand items

Sometimes, you need to buy plastic items. So many things are made from plastic that it’s difficult to avoid. If you do need to, perhaps consider buying items second-hand. Whether you take a look in charity shops or on eBay, there are often so many pre-loved items available for you to rehome.

16. Upcycle old plastic things

Have you ever heard of upcycling? If not, take note. Upcycling is when you revamp old items to make them more appealing or useful. This can be a great way to breathe new life into old plastic items or clothing garments so that they’re not wasted, and you don’t buy new things.

You can discover the full benefits of upcycling in our open step, but they include saving materials from landfills, celebrating artisanal work, and creating one-of-a-kind items. 

17. Avoid microplastics

Microplastics is a term we use to describe pieces of plastic debris that are less than 5mm in length. They are a big problem, especially in our oceans , as fish will often unknowingly consume microplastics. 

You can learn more about microplastics and microbeads in our open steps, but essentially you should try to avoid them. In the UK, microbeads are actually banned, but this is not the case everywhere. They can be found in many health, beauty and cleaning products. Microfibres come from clothing and other soft furnishings, so this is another reason why it’s useful to buy plastic-free fabrics. 

18. Put pressure on manufacturers

We discussed earlier how it’s vitally important for governments and manufacturers to make a difference when it comes to plastic use and plastic waste. However, the way you choose to spend your money can put pressure on manufacturers. 

Choosing to buy from a company is like a vote of confidence – if manufacturers see that fewer people are buying from them because of their attitudes to plastics, they are likely to make positive changes. 

19. Hold a town or beach clean

If you’re looking for more practical ways to prevent the spread of plastic pollution, look no further than a local clean. This is particularly easy to get involved in if you live by the sea, as there are often organised beach cleans taking place. You can learn more about this in our How to stop waste reaching the oceans open step.

However, you don’t have to wait for an organised event. Take a binbag with you to your town centre, beach, park or local beauty spot, and remove all the litter. You may even find something valuable if you’re lucky.

20. Speak up at work or university

For our final tip, we encourage you to inspire those around you. The easiest way to make a difference as individuals and communities is to encourage our friends, families, peers and coworkers to adjust their lifestyles. This doesn’t have to be in a preachy way – you just need to discuss the facts, give useful information, and offer practical and simple solutions for reducing plastic waste.

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