How we can turn our backs on carbon society

We are far too reliant on plastics, and need to wean ourselves off them, says Professor Michael Morris, Director of the SFI funded Advanced Materials and BioEngineering (AMBER) Centre
How we can turn our backs on carbon society

PLASTIC REVOLUTION: We need to foster a new, circular economy and ditch our reliance on plastic

THE Climate Action Plan presented to the Cabinet last month provides an ambitious goal of a carbon neutral Ireland by 2050. But is this achievable or aspirational?

Plastics are a key contributor to the climate emergency and they’re at the centre of a new public engagement project, ‘Plastic Preferences’, being led by myself as Academic Director of AMBER — the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research.

Originally from Liverpool and an adopted Corkonian, I want to hear from people across Cork on their attitudes to plastics, and how they might be willing to change their consumer habits.

We are responsible for climate change. We live in a linear ‘make-take-use-dispose’ economy. Wealth generation from mass manufacturing has seen the commercial exploitation of cheap resources to make products with short use periods, which quickly become obsolete or unfashionable, necessitating new purchases.

Plastics are a critical driver of this linear economy — easy to make at low cost, most are cheaper than their equivalent weight in than sugar. Plastics have an unrivalled range of properties — from the elastic in our clothes, to high strength panels in planes, to the poly-tunnels we grow many foods in — much of our society is built on carbon-based plastics.

We have become ‘the carbon society’ and now, in a bid to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (CO2) emissions, we face the challenge of changing the habits and attitudes that were founded with the industrial revolution back in 1733.

By 2050, we will manufacture more than a billion tonnes of plastic annually, contributing 30% of all CO2 emissions globally, releasing even more microplastics and toxins during manufacture and adding further to the environmental impact of landfill and incineration.

So, we should recycle more? Unfortunately, that’s only part of the answer. Using current technologies, plastic recycling is no more carbon efficient than manufacturing virgin plastic from fossil fuels, emitting around two to three times as much in CO2.

We must invest in low carbon recycling technologies and plastic alternatives.

Per capita, Ireland is the largest plastic importer and waste generator in the EU — reflecting the strength of our manufacturing economy but also underlining our technological and food industries’ reliance on plastic as a raw material for parts and packaging.

Professor Michael Morris, Director of the SFI funded Advanced Materials and BioEngineering (AMBER) Centre
Professor Michael Morris, Director of the SFI funded Advanced Materials and BioEngineering (AMBER) Centre

Plastics are a key component in production lines across Ireland, however, we do not perform well on their disposal. Our plastic recycling rate is the fourth worst in Europe and has been static at around 30% for several years. As in other sectors, we export our problems.

We have little national capability to recycle plastic waste and no facility to recycle contaminated waste, despite our active biotechnology sector.

Our lack of progress will continue as we face increasingly ambitious recycling rate goals of 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030, by which stage we should be recycling 90% of all single-use plastic bottles.

But what if we could simply stop using single-use plastic bottles? What if we could create more efficient recycling processes? Are we setting ourselves the wrong goals?

Research into new low carbon recycling processes and alternative plastics products, such as ultra-lightweight glass, is underway at AMBER and our approach is to think holistically about how we use plastic. We start with that well known adage: reduce, reuse, recycle.

As a society, we must reduce reliance on plastics and the responsibility for this lies with designers and manufacturers rather than consumers. Pile high / sell cheap economics cannot continue. Industry must re-invent itself and design products to last to enable consumers to reduce, reuse and recycle effectively.

We, as consumers, must be able to reuse plastics by washing or other treatments. For some products, such as electronics, increased repair capability is critical and when they can’t be repaired, can they be readily dissembled back into reusable components?

We may be able to accept that recycling should be a last resort, but should we need a TV repairing here in Cork, would we find that service accessible?

We must shift from a carbon society to a circular economy, where products and resources are kept in use for as long as possible to minimise environmental damage. Bike-sharing such as the Coca-Cola sponsored scheme in Cork, is the perfect example of circularity — we reduce the demand on resources by sharing products rather than owning them.

Lifelong products such as re-fillable detergent bottles, for example, are another alternative but they would require extra effort from the consumer. Could we embrace these little changes?

Because the change required is enormous and it can only be met if we maintain the choice, convenience and costs consumers expect. Government should set ambitious goals for society, but it should also plan for and fund the necessary research, support, infrastructure and legislation to deliver those goals in a way that industry and society can embrace.

There lies the difference between aspirational and achievable goals.

Public opinion and consumer power can also play a part, so it is vital for us as a society to think about our future, and how we might reduce, reuse and efficiently recycle plastics to transition to a circular economy.

In our new project Plastic Preferences, we’re calling on community groups, families and individuals to talk to us about which changes they might be willing to embrace. Visit www.ambercentre.ie/news or email amberplastics2021@gmail.com to request details.

Prof. M A Morris is the Director of the SFI funded Advanced Materials and BioEngineering (AMBER) Centre and Prof. of Surface and Interface Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin.

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