Managing Plastics: Uses, Losses and Disposal
Journal article, 2019
The term ‘plastic’ refers to a wide range of different materials with diverse properties and uses. Plastics are essential in a modern industrial economy. Plastic pollution results from the ‘leakage’ of plastics into the unconfined environment at all stages of the product cycle, not just following use, so the highest priority to prevent continuing pollution is to ensure that all plastics remain within the economy. The ‘circular economy’ approach may reduce but cannot eliminate plastic pollution without effective measures to prevent leakage. Measures to prevent leakage must be based on understanding of how plastics are brought into and moved through the economy; of the practical options for reducing demand for fresh plastic, re-using and recycling plastic products, and managing final waste; and on prioritizing development of alternative materials for specific uses.
Even if leakages of plastic into the environment are curtailed, the legacy of plastic pollution over the last seventy years will remain, particularly in the oceans. Marine plastic litter is a problem of the Global Commons and requires global action for its collection. Currently, landfilling of collected marine plastic debris is the only feasible option but, if economic uses can be found, this will partially offset future demand for fresh plastics.