The Big Idea
Climate and plastic… they’re not really the best of bedfellows, right?
What if we told you that plastic isn’t inherently evil? That’s what Peter Goult, Programme Director at Systemiq — a system change certified B Corp whose mission is to help build a better economy in line with the Paris Agreement — reveals.
Aside from having some really important uses like in the medical system and insulating our homes, we could even start turning the whole plastic system into a carbon sink.
But, first, the plastic we currently use needs a circularity makeover.
What is Plastic?
Plastics have become such an entrenched part of our lives. But what exactly is plastic and how is it made? Before plastic became so ubiquitous, it underwent a transformation from being a strictly natural product to being synthetically and widely produced.
Some of the earliest uses of plastic date as far back as 3,500 years ago when the Olmecs of Mexico used naturally occurring plastics like sap from gum trees to create rubber balls.
During the mid 19th and 20th centuries, synthetic plastics such as celluloid and bakelite made their debut and were used for decades. Unlike the rubber used by the Olmecs, most of today’s plastics are manmade and derived from fossil fuels, crude oil and natural gas are primary sources as they provide a cheap alternative to plastic made from plants.
Today, plastic is made of roughly 80% carbon, says Peter. The process involves digging the oil out of the ground, it’s a process which releases methane into the atmosphere.
Then, once it’s been turned into plastic, we tend to only use it once. Shockingly, Peter reveals, only about 9% of plastic is recycled.
“Having used it once, then we end up throwing it away. We either bury it in the ground in landfills, which then causes a lot of time more methane emissions, or we burn it. So all that carbon [the plastic is made from], then gets sent up into the atmosphere. And we’re doing more and more and more of this incineration, which means that emissions are accelerating, not slowing down. That’s why it’s a big problem.”Peter Goult
At every stage of the lifecycle of a plastic but most of all the beginning and end, it emits a greenhouse gas and contributes to global warming.
Talk to me about recycling.
You’ve probably been told “recycle, recycle, recycle.” The fact that you didn’t recycle that one plastic bottle you used back in 2016 when you were on holiday might even keep you up at night, but who’s counting?
9% is a shocking statistic. Should we even bother recycling?
There are many reasons for the percentage we’re recycling being so low.
Some plastics are not designed to be designed and some plastics fall through the cracks of the system and isn’t even collected while some plastics are contaminated (ie. covered in food). Yes, that’s why it’s important to clean out your plastic containers before you throw them in the recycling.
Plus, when it finally gets to the recycling facilities, the tech just isn’t there. Why? Because tech requires investment and the certainty that the plastic can be sold. But that certainty just isn’t there.
“A lot of the time, plastic ends up being down-cycled into plastic bags or bin bags, for example, instead of back up to good high quality plastics” says Peter.
But before you give up on recycling, get a load of this. In an ideal world, if we design them for recycling, 100% of plastics could be recycled.
How to design to recycle
“It’s about creating standardised plastics without additives that have clear markings about what is in them. And then also not attaching loads of complex stick substances to them or colourings.”Peter Goult
What is circularity?
Peter and his team spent time with representatives of about 90% of the plastic produced in Europe to find out what level of circularity can be achieved.
This is what they found.
- Eliminate unnecessary plastic
For example, products which have double packaging on them, tortilla chip bags that have empty air space at the top, and the plastic windows on pasta boxes. All of these are plastics that just aren’t needed and can be eliminated.
- Reuse schemes
Reusable coffee cups, plastic bottles that you can return — that’s just the start. Take-back schemes hold a lot of promise, especially for supermarkets. Imagine if every piece of plastic that came with your weekly shop was picked back up by your grocer? Think the milkman delivering and collecting your milk bottles, but on a much bigger scale.
All of those complex plastics that are hard to recycle? Substitute them for alternatives like paper and coated paper.
Everyone knows about traditional recycling which is mechanical recycling: chopping up the plastic and then just making it back into old bottles.
But have you heard of its sexier, more sustainable cousin, chemical recycling?
Chemical recycling involves melting the plastic back into a polymer and then doing a big loop back and making it into something that’s basically as good as new.
“There are some challenges to that,” warns Peter. “But it’s looking like it’s going to scale very significantly in the coming years.”
Why do we need plastics?
Plastics are the bad guy in the environmental movement right?
Well, actually, according to Peter: “Our society is powered by plastic. We couldn’t live without plastic today. We couldn’t sustain the global economy as big as it is. We simply couldn’t survive if we just got rid of plastic tomorrow.”
And plastic has its moments. Plastics are used to make bicycle helmets, child safety seats and airbags in automobiles. Syringes, prosthetics, and surgical devices? All made out of plastic.
Plastic also provides insulation, making our homes and cars more energy efficient and generally make modern life possible.
But, wait. Making our homes more energy efficient is a good thing for the planet, but we’re using something that isn’t very good for the planet to do it? Yep.
“Plastic provides amazing benefits to society. But it’s got some downsides too, right? It’s got the pollution elements, and it’s got the greenhouse gas problem. These are two big problems in the plastic system that we need to fix.”Peter Goult
Circularity can fix a lot of the issues.
“We did this very extensive study about how much circularity we could drive in the system by 2050? And the number we got is 80%,” says Peter.
But that still leaves that pesky 20%. So what do you do?
Biomass: a new way of making plastic?
“We’re making all this plastic out of oil. But in the future, what we’re going to need to do is shift to different sources for our carbon. We’re going to need to look at things like biomass,” says Peter.
Biomass? That’s anything that’s grown through photosynthesis.
Everything from our food waste to bio oils from cooking. And the neat thing about that? All of that biomass is grown. And what do things that grow do? (Hint: why do we love trees so much in the climate movement?) You got it. They suck carbon out of the atmosphere.
By doing these two things, getting carbon from a different place and putting it back into the ground when it’s finished, we can actually start turning the whole plastic system into a carbon sink. We can use it as a means of carbon removal. Mind-blowing, right?
“We can move the whole thing across to a system, which is either circular or is carbon negative and sequesters carbon.”Peter Goult
So plastic is not inherently evil? Exactly. Creating plastic in a less harmful way means it could even get rid of more carbon than it produces.
How ready is the tech?
A lot of it is still in its early stages. It needs more development and scaling out. But the tech isn’t in a lab somewhere. They are being put into practice.
One example is direct air capture — basically a machine that sucks carbon directly out of the air.
But it’s really expensive and requires a lot of renewable energy. But it will progress over time, it’ll become optimised and it will get cheaper.
Some of the steps are easy fixes like eliminating unnecessary plastic, which is already happening by the way. But some of the fixes have bigger price tags, like the direct air capture tech.
Could carbon capture be used as an excuse to go on burning fossil fuels?
“If we can just take carbon out of the atmosphere, we can keep extracting and burning fossil fuels.” So the argument goes.
As Peter explains: “That’s the net in net zero.” All net zero strategies were not created equal.
What does that mean? It means that in theory, having the superpower to remove emissions from the atmosphere could mean fossil fuel companies hold up their hands and shriek: “Burn baby, we’ve solved the problem.” It’s still net zero after all, right?
But that’s not what we should be aiming for. What we really want is the smallest amount of emissions possible and the least amount of offsetting necessary. “It’s the quality of net zero you’re trying to achieve,” says Peter.
All in all, using your reusable coffee cup is important. But it’s also about designing low-emission policies and systems. And that kind of change can only come from high on up.
So what now?
“Now is the time to act.”
After years of report-writing, what Peter is focused on now is unlocking the capital that goes into those technologies so that in 3-5 years, we could be holding in our hands a lump of plastic that is carbon negative. That means that any company that uses plastic could start making products that aren’t just ‘emissions neutral,’ they’re ‘emissions negative.’ Exciting stuff.
Your homework this week
Put your money where your values are because every penny you spend is a vote for the world you want to see. So enter into reuse schemes, stop using unnecessary plastic and enter into reuse schemes.
“As a consumer, what you need to do is be the demand signal to all the big decision makers in the corporations and say: ‘These models work, we want to engage with them, and this is the future we want.’”Peter Goult
Until next time – stay curious!
Tune in to the latest Climate Curious by TEDxLondon with co-hosts Maryam Pasha and Ben Hurst from New York Times’ Climate Forward event as we ask, can life in plastic still be fantastic? So fantastic in fact, as Peter explains, that plastic could be a carbon sink.