This is a ‘catch all’ guide that outlines key problems with plastic and plastic pollution in society, and potential solutions to solve them and manage them into the future.
We are aware some problems can’t be ‘solved’ completely – so, this guide can also be viewed as a starting point for discussion for managing plastic problems in a better way.
The way we have structured the guide is:
- General Solutions To Plastic Problems
- Solutions To Ocean Based Plastic Problems
- Solutions To Land Based Plastic Problems
- Solutions To The 21 Potential Harmful Effects Of Plastic
Summary – Solutions To Plastic Problems
Solutions to plastic problems center around the production, use, waste, disposal and waste management, and pollution involving plastic
Some solutions are very simple, whilst some solutions are going to take a multi layered approach by individual and consumers, businesses/producers and innovators, and government/policy makers. It’s also clear that we need much clearer and more comprehensive research and study done on some potential issues and existing issues to understand them and gain better certainty on them (e.g. the real impact of BPA, phthalates and microplastics on human health)
In solving plastic problems, the pros and cons of plastic should be weighed up against each other, and considerations should span across social and human health, economic, environmental and wildlife, and technological and practical. Although plastic creates some problems, it also serves various important uses across society, and benefits us in various ways. So, we must consider how the choices we make impact these pros and cons, and benefits and drawbacks
*NOTE: there are solutions that will essentially help solve a wide range of, or most of the plastic problems listed. These include reducing plastic consumption and production (at least of single use or short use types of plastic like plastic packaging, or commonly highly disposable plastic items), re-using and repurposing plastic, re-designing plastic material itself (or creating new types of non harmful plastic), re-designing plastic packaging and plastic products (for better recycling for example), and using alternate materials to plastic. To avoid repetition, we have not listed these solutions under all problems below, even though they are often relevant to each.
General Solutions To Plastic Problems
As mentioned above, some of the general solutions to plastic issues we face in society might be:
Invest in much clearer, more transparent, and more definitive research, study and data on the plastic issues. There is still significant uncertainty around the actual risk (to human health) of BPA, phthalates, and plastic additives at the current levels of exposure in society. There is still uncertainty around the toxicity and problems with certain types of highly chlorinated PVC plastic. There is still a lack of data plastic pollution on land. There is still uncertainty of what impact micro plastics and nano plastics might be having on humans.
… These are just four examples, but there are more. Without clearer data and more definitive findings, it’s hard to justify spending time and money on addressing specific plastic problems, and focussing in on specific causes of these problems.
Get some real certainty on the types of plastic, and types of plastic products or plastic items that are causing the most issues, and doing the most significant damage or harm. When and how are they causing problems, and for who (humans? wildlife? the air, water and soil in the environment? the economy?)? What is the exact impact of effect of these plastics?
Distinguish between plastics that are necessary for critical functions and important priorities in society (plastics that preserve safety and hygiene, plastics that prevent food waste etc.), and problem plastics (toxic plastics, plastics that have high waste rates, unnecessary or easily substitutable plastics etc). First, aggressively address how we can manage problem plastics.
Some plastics have far more significant pros than cons. When planning or pursuing solutions to plastic problems – consider what the drawback to these choices will be. For example, plastics that don’t have a high waste rate, or make things far safer, more economical, eco friendly etc. for us – may not be reduced or phased out as quickly as other plastics.
Consider that many plastics are actually very beneficial at the transport and pre consumer phase in a lot of ways (plastics are lighter, more affordable, more flexible, more durable, and more eco friendly to produce and use than some alternate materials). Disposal of plastic and plastic pollution are where some of the major problems arise – so, consider the stage of the plastic lifecycle that is most problematic and see where solutions may be available at these stages.
Reduce the use of plastics overall (by individuals, businesses and commercial and industrial organisations) – which will have a flow on effect of decreasing the per capita rate of plastic production, plastic waste, the need to manage plastic waste, and plastic pollution
Invest time and money into making sure that low to middle income countries have adequate waste collection and waste management systems and facilities, such as contained/secure landfills that don’t leak plastic waste
Invest time and money into reducing the littering of plastic waste in all countries, and into the clean up of littered plastic waste on land and on beaches (by volunteers, councils, or private organisations)
Invest time and money into reducing the dumping of marine plastic waste in oceans from fishing vessels, especially in intensively fished areas
Focus specifically on reducing mismanaged plastic waste (littered plastic, and inadequately disposed of plastic), and plastic pollution in rivers, in countries and regions where it is most prevalent (Asia is the most notable region)
Reduce the use of highly disposable, single use plastics like plastic food wrappers, plastic bags, plastic straws etc. – these are often the most littered plastic items too
Specifically focus on reducing plastics with the highest rate of waste – like plastic packaging (compared to construction plastics as an example – which might be in use for years or decades). Understand solutions specifically for addressing plastic packaging over other types of plastic and plastic waste
Put time and money into research development for changing the chemical makeup, and/or changing the additives in plastic to address specific problems such as fossil fuels as a feedstock in plastics, leaching of plastic chemicals, or not being able to recycle certain plastics
Redesign plastic packaging and plastic products to use less problem type plastics, or to be more recyclable, more re-suable, better for repurposing, or compostable
Use alternative materials to plastic where possible for all applications
Spend time and money on making sure that the right plastics are being targeted to be recycled in each locale, and that effective recycling collection and processing systems and facilities are in place. It may make sense to only recycle some types of plastics due to feasibility factors
Spend time and money making sure that the right plastics are being used for waste to energy, and that the right incineration or plastic burning technology is in place
Spend time and money making sure that landfills are receiving the right plastics, and that they have effective landfill liners and leachate management
Use textiles and clothing made from natural fibres or materials, and/or, ensure households are using more effective washing practices and filtering systems to capture and deal with micro and nano plastics
Use more natural and organic personal care and cosmetic products over products with micro bead issues
Ensure potable water, waste water and sewage treatment facilities are set up with proper filtration, capture and management technology to deal with micro and nano plastics
Ensure that waste water and sewage treatment facilities are not contributing to micro plastics in the environment by making sure that they aren’t using plastic beads or pellets that create micro plastic problems
Make sure tap water is filtered to capture micro plastics
Use metal, glass and additive free drink and food containers and products where possible over those made of plastic (especially for drinking water)
Have more awareness campaigns around flushing plastic items down toilets in households (ear cleaners, wet wipes, personal hygiene items)
Consider how plastic additives can be removed or substituted from roads, road marking, car tyres, and the sole of human shoes. If this is unrealistic, consider how strom water and waste water run off drains can better capture and filter plastic out of water and waste streams
Consider how agricultural plastics can be substituted for alternate materials
Consider that the use of bio solids and sewage sludge for fertilizer on agricultural land might be contributing to microplastics in soil on agricultural land, and sediments elsewhere. Are there alternate fertilizers that can be used instead, or can bio solids and ex sewage sludge fertilizer be filtered and purified in a better way to remove plastic particles? Also, consider how recycled wastewater and rubbish contributes to micro plastic in agricultural soils, and plastic products used by farmers themselves.
Use natural products where possible inside homes, such as wooden furniture or natural fibres in clothing, over plastic furniture or synthetic fibre clothing and textiles
Be aware of the main causes of land based plastic issues, and the main causes of ocean based plastic issues, and aggressively address these main causes to be more effective in addressing plastic problems, as opposed to trying to address causes that might be less significant. Just as one example, one source indicates that we should be focussing on improving effective waste management in low to middle income to better address ocean plastic pollution, rather than worry about trying to reduce the use of plastic straws in developed countries
Develop individual solutions for each town, city, State/Province and country depending their individual plastic issues and problems, and how they contribute to national and global plastic issues and problems
Additionally, some extra resources which might provide extra answers to plastic problems are:
- How Individuals, Producers & Industry, & Government & Policy Makers Can Address Plastic Issues On Each Level (ourworldindata.org)
- Suggestion On What A New Plastic Economy Might Look Like In The Future – (weforum.org)
- Designing Plastics & Plastic Packaging In A More Effective Way For Recycling – (plasticsrecycling.org)
Consider these statements from triplepundit.com in moving towards a different future with plastic:
- … plastics need a “new chemistry”
- … Innovation is required in all steps of the plastics value chain — including new materials, product designs, business models and recycling technologies
- We don’t want a world without plastics, even it were possible. The challenge and opportunity of a New Plastics Economy is carving a circular path for plastics, indeed for the entire economy, that aligns itself with natural processes, resources efficiency, and economic sustainability.
Solutions To Ocean Based Plastic Problems
We’ve already put together a guide on solutions to ocean plastic pollution which you can read here.
You can also read the ‘Plastic In The Ocean: FAQ Guide‘, which generally explains plastic in the ocean, including problems, causes, sources, effects etc.
Solutions To Land Based Plastic Problems
You can read a guide about land based plastic pollution problems here.
What really needs to be done is, each source of land based plastic pollution needs to be identified, and these sources each need a solution of their own.
We will list the problems followed by potential solutions:
- Lack of certainty over the full extent and impact of plastics on land
Although several sources indicate that plastic land pollution may be far bigger an issue than ocean plastic pollution, there seems to be less certainty about it, and less data and research available on it. More research, more data available, and more certainty around the core issues, sources, impact and solutions would help.
It’s difficult to focus on major causes, or see the utility in solving a problem (or justify spending money and time on it) when you don’t know how negative the impact of that problem or issue actually is.
- Mismanaged plastic – littered plastic, and inadequately disposed of plastic
Littered plastic: stopping the litter of plastic is the clear solution here – specifically, focussing on reducing the littering of plastic packaging type plastic waste (which are some of the most commonly found/littered items on cleanups). But, if plastic continues to be littered, land and beach volunteer and council cleanups will help reduce the amount of littered plastic.
Inadequately disposed of plastic: more a problem in low to middle income countries, where open and uncontained landfills allow plastic waste to spill out into the environment and breakdown. Quite simply, better waste collection and waste management (contained and secure landfills), would help here.
- Plastic in landfills
Aside from ensuring that landfills are secure and closed off (to prevent the leaking of plastic waste), landfills should have effective soil liners to prevent soil contamination, and should have a proper leachate management system to handle any leachate (especially from potentially problem plastics like high chlorine PVC).
- Incinerated plastic
Plastic that is being burnt in a waste for energy plant should have the proper air filter and air contaminant devices fitted (to deal with carbon, and air contaminants like dioxins and other air pollutants). There should also be proper waste management services in place to deal with the waste by products caught in filtering systems.
- Lack of plastic being recycled
There’s many reasons why majority of plastic isn’t being recycled, and why some plastic gets rejected from recycling facilities (plastic is mixed, plastic is contaminated, it’s a non recyclable plastic etc.).
Firstly, there needs to be more clarity on which plastics are feasible, beneficial, and practical to recycle in each local market (not all plastic types and plastic products make sense to recycle).
Secondly, recycling collection services and recycling processing facilities need to be adequate and effective in dealing with plastics that are approved to be recycled. Some cities and town don’t have recycling facilities at all, and others have facilities that are simply too inefficient or can’t process enough types of plastic products in an effective way.
Plastic that isn’t recycled ends up in landfill, incineration or as waste in the environment – so it’s important to get recycling right, as it has a flow on effect.
Recycling plastic in reality is something that needs local solution, and needs a multi level approach.
- Break down of plastic into micro and nano plastics
There’s really no way to solve the presence of micro-plastics and nano plastics, unless the use of plastic is reduced.
Just as one example, plastic fibres in the air indoors in households is thought to come partially from synthetic textiles and clothing, and plastic furniture. Using natural fibre textiles and alternative furniture like wood furniture may be one part of the solution to this specific example.
But, micro plastics and nano plastics are found everywhere on land – in soil, sediments, the air, rivers, lakes, drinking water, and more.
- Micro plastics in bottled water
Use glass or metal reusable drinking bottles.
- Micro plastics in tap water
Tap water can be filtered, but to better address the issue, the causes of micro plastic contamination upstream where the tap water is sourced from need to be addressed.
- Plastic in sewage and wastewater
There’s many ways plastic fibres and micro plastics get into sewage and waste water.
Micro plastics and plastic fibres can come from upstream sources, or they can come from water treatment and sewage treatment facilities themselves.
Upstream sources may include plastic fibres from clothing and textiles that are being washed in homes, plastic items being flushed down the toilet, run off from roads (plastic road additives, markings, and car tyres) etc.
Plastic can also come from treatment facilities that use plastic beads in processing or filtering water and waste.
- Plastic fibres from washing of synthetic plastic fibre clothing
Now we are getting into the causes and sources of micro plastic pollution on land.
Better filtering and waste water management from washing machines could help.
- Micro beads from cosmetics and personal care products
Pretty self explanatory – plastic filled products can be replaced with natural and organic products.
- Plastic from road run off
A hard one to address, unless the run off water is properly filtered and plastic fibres and micro plastics are disposed of in the right way.
- Plastic in fresh water sources (lakes, rivers etc.)
Sources suggest a lot of the micro plastic in fresh water sources comes from the washing of synthetic fibre clothing and textiles in homes.
In low to middle income countries, a lack of contained and closed off landfill sites and inadequate plastic waste collection services contributes to plastic pollution in rivers.
- Plastic in soil and sediments
Comes from many sources – would need to address each source individually.
- Micro plastic in the air
Comes from many sources – would need to address each source individually.
As mentioned above though, indoor micro plastic pollution could be addressed if more natural fibre textiles are used and furniture such as wood (or natural materials) are used over plastic furniture.
Solutions To 21 Potential Harmful Effects Of Plastic
You can read about the 21 Potentially Harmful Effects Of Plastic in this guide.
We will list the problems followed by potential solutions:
- BPA in plastic
Firstly, there needs to be far more certainty (which will come about with more transparent and more definitive studies) around just how harmful BPA might be in the plastic we use and are exposed to in society.
Too many studies offer uncertainty about the plastic types and plastic products that might be the problem, and what the definite impact of exposure to these plastics is.
If we assume BPA is a problem in the levels we are exposed to it through plastic right now – then, BPA free plastic products may be one part of the answer.
But, some sources indicate that ‘BPA Free Products’ that are being offered may be a concern too, as the substitutes for BPA have questions over their safety (livescience.com).
So, BPA free plastic products may need some type of certification for safety (in a similar way that organic cotton has certification).
- Phthalates in plastic
The same solutions for phthalates in plastic would be suggested as has been listed above for BPA.
Also, know the difference between high and low phthalates
- PVC as a problem plastic type
Some sources indicate PVC as a plastic type (and highly chlorinated PVC in particular) can be a problem (over it’s lifecycle from production to disposal), whilst others sources say it isn’t.
There needs to be more certainty on what types of PVC are a problem, and when/how they are a problem.
Problem PVC types may need certification for safe or eco friendly production, use and disposal.
Using alternblate materials to PVC may also be an solution.
- Plastic leaching other chemicals
We are talking about additives, stabilizers, fillers and plasticizers, the release of toxins or hormone disruptors.
Again – there needs to be more definitive studies that provide more clarity and certainty around how and when plastic does this. Is it impacting just animals, or humans too?
If we assume plastic is leaching harmful chemicals or additives into the environment, that is finding it’s way into humans, wildlife, food sources, water supplies, and so on, then we need to use alternate materials to plastic, or start a certification system for plastic that the plastics we are using don’t have these harmful chemicals and toxins.
- Microplastics ingested and inhaled by humans
We need more certainty on how micro plastics are impacting humans.
But, the reality is that there are many ways humans are ingesting or inhaling micro plastics.
We need to look at each source individually and address them.
We’ve used the indoor example above of humans inhaling micro plastic fibres from synthetic fibre textiles/clothing and plastic furniture.
- Plastics taking a long time to decompose
The key way to address this would be to isolate plastic to landfills where they can decompose with less impact on the environment, animals and humans.
But, newer plastics like compostable plastics or bioplastics may help too.
- Better plastic recycling
There’s various ways to improve the recycling of plastic, some of which we mentioned above.
But, one way is to develop new types of plastic like PDK plastic that can be recycled a greater amount of times (plastic currently can only be recycled between one to nine times as an estimate before it can’t be recycled anymore). Even PDK plastic though might only have limited applications for use – so, it isn’t a complete solution.
- Plastics in landfill
As mentioned above, make sure landfills are adequate to contain and manage plastic waste (with effective liners and leachate management systems).
Make sure landfill sites in low to middle income countries are secure and closed off to prevent the leaking of plastic.
- Incinerating plastics
We need to incinerate the right plastics that are feasible to burn for waste to energy.
But also, the incineration technology needs to be eco friendly.
Burning plastic in an eco friendly way can be expensive, so, we may also look for ways to bring costs and technology capital costs down.
- Ingestion of plastics by wildlife
Better containment in landfills, and waste management of plastic would help with this.
More plastic staying in landfills and less plastic getting out into rivers and the ocean would mean lower rates of ingestion of plastic by wildlife.
Ingestion of micro plastics would be harder to address.
- Entanglement in plastic by wildlife
Fishing nets and fishing line are big culprits of this, along with plastic items like plastic can holder packaging.
Less littered and inadequately disposed of plastic in the environment would help (via better waste management systems).
But, also, there is marine plastic pollution in addition to land based sources of plastic pollution.
A lot of marine based plastic pollution comes from fishing vessels.
There’s some ideas for reducing the dumping of fishing gear and fishing equipment at https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/five-ways-to-tackle-ghost-fishing-gear
- Plastic uses fossil fuels in it’s production, and can be energy and resource intensive
Using alternative materials to plastic is the obvious answer here, or alternate feedstocks like those used in bioplastics.
- Plastic pollution costs money to address
Pretty obvious – reduce plastic waste rates, and the amount of plastic waste getting out into rivers and oceans, and the cost to address plastic pollution will go down.
- Plastic attracting and building up with toxic pollutants
We can help with this issue by reducing the amount of toxic pollutants we use as part of society and in every day life.
But also, reducing plastic pollution in the environment and restricting plastic to landfill would help with this.
- Plastic and the emission greenhouse gases
Using less plastic overall is really the only way to address this if majority of GHGs from plastic are coming from the production process.