Updated: Jun 26, 2021
Plastic pollution this past year highlighted the need to keep a solution in sight— and Professor Richard Thompson, OBE FRS, of the University of Plymouth, UK did just that. Richard Thompson, a marine biologist who leads the International Marine Litter Research Unit was the first to coin the term “microplastics”. The quantity of plastic debris in the ocean is likely to triple between 2015 and 2025, leaving visibly negative impacts of plastic pollution on the economy, wildlife, and human health and wellbeing. Thompson and numerous scientists have identified and quantified this global challenge; however, society is at a crossroads as we look to solving the multifaceted issue that is plastic pollution.
During a panel discussion entitled “Perspectives on Plastic Pollution” alongside Professor Tasman Crowe, Dr. Treasa De Loughry, and Associate Professor Tancredi Caruso from University College Dublin and Dr. Noreen O’Meara from the University of Surrey, Thompson proposed a working hypothesis of how to solve the plastic problem: to design, use, and dispose of plastic products more responsibly. He argues that plastics as materials are not the cause of the problem, as they have vital uses in technological, medical and agricultural settings. Thompson furthers his point by regarding bans on material reduction as flawed solutions. For example, banning straws does not go far enough, and a completely plastic-free grocery aisle may lead to an increase in food waste from lack of food preservation. We need balance in our treatment of plastic and a way to keep the benefits of plastic without the issues.
How might we go about this? The consensus among Thompson and the other faculty is to implement a circular life cycle for plastic with assistance from those outside of the natural science community. Plastic has been a vital part of the design process for sixty years, so humans had sixty years of behavioral training to use plastic linearly, meaning that throwing plastic away is the end of its life cycle. Waste in the ocean is a result of this use. We need a better method than solely clean-up to solve plastic pollution. Instead, we can start at the beginning to design plastic products for a life in service and consider their end of life to reduce and divert waste.
Social solutions from a variety of areas can also help guide us into a new, better norm. There is an urgent priority for policy to create a demand pull for recycling; the humanities can help to tell an accurate story of the scientifically, conceptually, and culturally tricky idea of plastic waste; legislation and legal assistance is needed to nudge and create policy; and fuel for the innovation to design for a circular economy has to be generated. All industries— and the individual consumers who guide them—have a role and responsibility, but with collaboration, a successful reduction in marine plastic pollution can be in sight.