By Sergio Corbo
Plastics are arguably the greatest man-made material ever designed. They also pose one of the greatest challenges to the future health of the planet.
Sixty years have passed since the start of mass plastics manufacturing and we still lack a full understanding around the longevity or potential harmful effects of the plastics we rely on daily.
Many people might be shocked to learn that only 10 percent of the plastics produced each year actually get recycled. According to an article by the New York Times, each year seven million tons of the plastics tossed for disposal make their way to our oceans. In the Pacific Ocean today a vast island of plastics, approximately the size of Texas or 270,000 square miles, floats and expands while causing harm to marine wildlife.
Humans are not immune. Tiny plastic polymers are increasingly ending up in the food we eat, ingested by animals from the pollution we are creating.
How did we get here? Plastics are inexpensive and lightweight, yet extremely durable and malleable. As such, they are used by every industry in every corner of the world, from food packaging to automotive to healthcare and aerospace. Unfortunately, most of these products take decades or more to decompose and break down.
There are some signs for optimism. The United Nations recently unveiled its new Global Plastics Platform, encouraging countries to commit in reducing plastic pollution. Companies across the globe, like Ikea and Starbucks, are making commitments to reduce the need for single-use plastics. And the European Union recently voted to ban single-use plastics by 2022.
But half measures won’t be enough to stem the tide.
That’s why we need everyone involved in the global plastics supply chain and lifecycle to collaborate, identify and execute a solution today. That means designers, manufacturers, vendors, consumers and recycling companies alike need to take aggressive action.
We need to break this cycle with serious, long-term solutions to the problem that provide greater incentive to minimize plastics use and promote recycling. Designers and manufacturers need to work together to ensure that they are creating products and packaging with an environmentally friendly lifecycle. Vendors need to ensure they are working with manufacturers who recognize the importance of plastics sustainability. And responsibility needs to be placed on consumers to choose, whenever possible, a product that has recyclable packaging and to ensure that the item itself is recycled after use.
Globally, we must also recognize the need for major investments in plastic recycling infrastructure. Technology is our ally in this fight and, as history has shown, innovation has quite a track record of helping us overcome the prominent issues of the time.
It doesn’t take much to realize that the challenge posed by plastics is rapidly becoming a crisis. The time is now to find a way to overcome these challenges, and mobilize on behalf of the planet.
Sergio Corbo is Chief Marketing Officer for Veolia North America, a leading environmental and energy solutions company.