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Single-use news for an anti-plastic world

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The mainstream media attacked plastics time and time again in 2018 for the widespread pollution of the marine environment, but can the industry change the conversation this year?

Author: Rose Brooke is a British freelance journalist specialising in plastics recycling and the circular economy.

The New Year presents a great opportunity for the myriad stakeholders of the international plastics community; from industry associations, to event organisers, to the industry media, and of course to the businesses that manufacture and distribute plastics machinery and materials.
The last 12 months have been testing for plastics. It seemed that hardly a day went by without the industry and major brand names coming under fire as the true extent of the global plastic litter pandemic became known. As with any good story, there needs to be a bad guy, and plastic was the antagonist the media chose regardless of economically and scientifically-sound arguments in favour of automotive lightweighting, contamination-proof medical packaging, or carbon-saving across the whole supply chain.
Bookending this tumultuous period for plastics, the Collins Dictionary chose ‘single-use’ as the word of the year. Indeed, ‘single-use’ plastics are the undisputed poster boy for littering, in particular plastics that are difficult to recycle.
If 2018 was the year we all came to terms with the extent of plastic waste in the natural environment, let 2019 be the year we all work together to reverse the damage, even if the media is still pointing the finger more at the plastics manufacturing industry as the main enemy of the environment, rather than the individuals, organisations and (in some cases) entire countries that are dumping their plastic waste rather than feeding it into the proper waste streams for recycling or waste-to-energy exchange.
The opportunity the industry has in the coming 12 months is to choose a different narrative for ‘single-use’ plastics. In some instances, legislation is being laid down that already decides what this narrative should be – in October 2018, the European Union voted overwhelmingly in favour of banning single-use plastics including cutlery, straws, drink-stirrers and cotton bud sticks – but for many other single-use plastics, the industry can take control and map its own future for bringing products to consumers that are both functional and sustainable.
The mainstream media has time and time again failed to give plastics processors right of reply when discussing the War on Plastics, preferring to shock the public with imagery of polluted beaches and distressed or dead seabirds and marine life. Although the single-use plastics are the pollutant in this sad story, the cause of the pollution is through the mismanagement of waste, even though this is rarely explored by the media. Arguing this point, however, is gaining no traction with the mainstream news, and so instead of trying to unmask this enemy to the environment, the plastics industry can choose to champion the White Knight in this narrative: recycling.
Plastics processing has a long road ahead of it to clear its name, but every good news story deserves to be shouted about to help restore the public’s confidence. The Circular Economy mantra to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ is not just catchy marketing for big brands, these three ‘Rs’ are areas to improve on throughout the entire plastics processing chain. If a plastic product cannot be recycled right now, can the amount of plastic in it be reduced? Or could carbon savings be made somewhere along the supply chain?  Are there new recycled plastic materials entering the market that could replace virgin plastics? And what about the development that is going into producing recycling systems making them more efficient, allowing them to be brought into more facilities for end-to-end plastic product recycling? If your work is making this happen, it should be made known, and eventually the mainstream media will have a new plastics story to print in 2019.
The New Year is the perfect opportunity for plastics to take control of how this story is told. Recycling is our hero, but there are lots of other forces for good in plastics processing that can help shape the narrative positively for plastics, and for the environment in general.

Rose Brooke

Rose Brooke

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