The capability to recycle different plastics is one of the many issues facing countries seeking to reduce plastic pollution. Sharon Humphreys of Packaging New Zealand, Foodstuffs Sustainability Manager Mike Sammons and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Professor Juliet Gerrard discuss some of the issues within a panel led by broadcaster Kim Hill.
It’s a marvellous packaging material, but it’s not a good material if we want something to actually degrade back into the environment quickly. So it’s got an incredibly long life, it’s efficient, it’s economic, so those are the things that, those are the properties of it that make it such good packaging but make it very, very difficult when it comes to end of life. Now the reality is that we can do something with all of this packaging. It is technically recyclable, but that gets into another whole area of do we have the capacity, do we have the capability? And the whole world is grappling with this at this moment in time.
We have to eliminate unnecessary packaging. Recycling will not solve the plastics problem. Do you agree or not. Let me start with you Mike Sammons.
I think the first thing to do is to look at reduction, so if you don’t need packaging, don’t use it basically. And the plastic bags action is a case in point there, that we’ve seen that consumers can adapt and have adapted very well to that. So what was the figure? 750 million plastic bags a year? So that’s significant. So the first thing’s around reduction, and then the second thing’s about if you do, if you’re looking for packaging, aim for it to be renewable rather than non-renewable and then if it can’t be renewable, if you can’t look at a fibre-based packaging and you have to use plastic, ensure that that plastic can – well in an ideal world, it will be recyclable but not just recyclable, but recycle back into what it actually came from. So you’ve got a circular solution.
What do you think Juliet? Can we even approximate dealing with the problem by recycling?
Professor Juliet Gerrard
No, because even if you could do all the sorting and get people to recycle, the chemistry’s still not perfect. So it will never be a circle, it will be a downward spiral.
So Mike was in fact wrong? You’ll always have to downcycle?
Professor Juliet Gerrard
I don’t think he’s completely wrong, so I think recycling’s part of the problem and part of the solution.
Video excerpt from Science and the Plastics Problem, directed by Shirley Horrocks and produced by Point of View Productions. The full documentary can be viewed here.