6 April 2022

A second chance for plastic

If we were to replace plastic with paper or glass, would the environment benefit? Surprisingly, no, says professor of Circular Plastics Kim Ragaert. She is calling for an alternative approach aimed at increasing awareness of and knowledge about recycling. “We should see plastic as a raw material rather than as waste.”

Kim Ragaert

Plastic is, as it were, a victim of its own success. “It’s lightweight, strong and versatile, which makes it economically appealing. But there are many different subtypes of plastic and, in a practical sense, therein lies the rub. Good plastic recycling is much more complicated than just tossing everything together into the recycling bin.”

Licence to litter

Naturally, we need to avoid creating a great deal of additional waste. Ragaert regrets measures such as the European Single Use Plastics Directive, which prohibits disposable products from being made of plastic instead of banning them altogether. “This gives people a ‘licence to litter’ by implying you can just use alternatives like bamboo straws or biodegradable soup cups once and then throw them out. That way they’re not recycled and we end up polluting the environment even more. I’d rather see a European Single Use Product Directive—let’s reuse all our products more often, taking plastic as an example. We should see it as a raw material rather than as waste.”

Good plastic recycling is much more complicated than just tossing everything together into the recycling bin.
Kim Ragaert

 

Valuable material

A stronger commitment to plastic recycling would require a different, more responsible mindset. “For starters, product developers will have to design products that take the recycling process into account. The government can encourage this through legislation and subsidies. In addition, we have to raise awareness; consumers need to know that plastic is a valuable material, that we can really do something with it as long as we reuse it properly. Then demand will eventually arise again automatically, and it will become easier for product developers and retailers to use plastic again. Often they shy away from it because consumer pressure is high and plastic has a bad image.”

Kim Ragaert

Fishing nets

Recycling should result in less new waste, but what do we do with the plastic that is already polluting our oceans? “Plastic that has long been exposed to UV light and seawater can be even more difficult to process. Fortunately, there are innovative startups that have succeeded, for example, in turning discarded fishing nets—which make up a large part of marine litter—into new fishing nets. In any event, plastic waste has to be removed from the sea, of course, and we have to avoid creating more marine pollution. Globally, the Western world should take responsibility by helping to develop the collection and recycling infrastructure in countries where a great deal of litter is currently generated. That way, packaging will find its way into the circular economy there too.”

Unselfish

Ragaert would rather contribute to a better world than help companies turn a profit. “That's why I chose academia; I want to do my part through my research.” But she also tries to set a good example in everyday life. “I sort my waste, reuse products wherever possible, drink from the tap or from a refillable bottle, buy products made from recycled plastic, replenish soap from large bottles instead of buying small ones. Every little bit helps, and if we all contribute, we can generate a critical mass for all materials. If people stop buying those cute little 0.15L soft-drink cans or 20g of pre-packaged nuts, they’ll soon disappear from the shelves.”

By: Milou Schreuders (text), Sem Shayne (photography)