Realising the value of plastics in a move to a more sustainable future

Individuals and members of our society can all take part in protecting our planet by choosing to use reusable and recyclable products over single-use items, irrespective of the material from which they are made, comments Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).
Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is the secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).

Plastics have garnered a lot of negative attention in recent years, as our ocean pollution crisis reaches catastrophic levels. According to the latest UN report, a staggering 13 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year and by 2050, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

More recently, media reports have emerged raising questions about the negative impact of microplastics on human health. Microplastics are tiny particles that are less than five millimetre (mm) in length. These originate from plastic debris as they begin to break down into smaller pieces and may enter water streams in the form of microfibres from clothing, or microbeads.

The impact of microplastics on human health has come under increased scrutiny, with many media outlets warning of the dangers of ingesting small plastic particles that enter natural streams and escape into our drinking water. Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) released an analysis of their current research, which concluded that microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are not likely to be absorbed in the human body and uptake of smaller particles is expected to be limited.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the outcomes of the WHO analysis, which we hope will clarify some of the myths around the issue and build much-needed awareness among the public. Significant scientific research is ongoing around the world to determine any negative effects from plastics and additives on human health and the environment. At the same time, we support the call from WHO for further studies to develop a deeper understanding of microparticles in water and their potential impact on human health.

Furthermore, future studies should focus on the potential impact of microplastics during human ingestion from a variety of environmental sources including air, water and food. Research has shown that water treatment can remove up to 90% of microplastics, with tertiary treatments such as filtration proving most effective. Therefore, a concerted effort should be made by water authorities and bottling companies to zoom in on such treatments.

It is also important to note that the current discourse about microplastics and the subsequent new research released by WHO drives home a key issue surrounding the larger debate on plastics, namely, that for decades speculation, not facts, have influenced public opinion, helped to inform government legislation and even enact bans deemed to be detrimental to the economy, job creation and business growth.

Time and time again we have read media reports deprived of any scientific evidence that single out plastic as the main culprit in the waste management crisis we all face today. This has helped to shape a rather negative image about the material that lacks balance and fails to address the real issue at stake, which fundamentally lies in a lack of awareness about the true benefits of plastics as a resource that continues to play a major role in making our lives safer and more sustainable.

Plastic is a valuable material that is essential to modern life. Due to its light weight and anti-rust properties, it has enabled weight and, thus, emission reductions from vehicles and aircrafts by up to 30%. It also reduces fuel consumption by 10%. Plastic packaging advances sustainability as it helps to keep food fresher for longer, reducing food waste by a third globally. Polymers have excellent insulation properties, which makes them the material of choice for achieving net zero energy green buildings.

Despite their sustainable properties, 95% of plastic packaging material value, which is equivalent to $80-$120bn annually, is lost to the economy after its first life, while 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems. At the same time, the use of plastics has increased twenty-fold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

The core of the problem lies in the fact that the value of plastics is not fully recognised after its first use, and with a rise in plastics production, waste management infrastructure has not been able to keep pace. GPCA is keen to raise awareness about this issue through intelligent discussions with our industry peers, government, media and the wider public. Plastic can be recycled and given a new life, thus preserving its value and preventing its loss and leakage in the environment.

The move to more sustainable plastic solutions has seen brand owners make changes to their packaging, creating an opportunity for the chemical industry to work together to find solutions, eliminate waste and move towards a circular economy – an innovative new concept built on the notion that plastics do not end up in our oceans and landfills, but rather create an effective after use economy.

With this in mind, GPCA alongside some of its members and value chain partners formed coalition CIRCLE (Coalition of Innovation in Recycling towards a Closed Loop Economy) in the UAE in April this year and signed a pledge with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) to develop a circular economy model to combat the issue of plastic and packaging waste pollution by improving collection in the Emirates. The initiative is an example of a regional collaborative effort to address plastic waste through effective cooperation, innovation and informed decision-making among governmental authorities and value chain partners.

Governments in the GCC and around the world should start to enforce legislation that supports the plastics circular economy to be a driving force in the efforts to enhance plastics sustainability and it is our duty as an industry to support the governments in developing the right policies for environmental protection, which are backed by solid scientific evidence. It is only through informed decisions, collaboration and responsible behaviour that we can make a difference at a time when our actions must speak louder than our words.

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