England bans plastic straws
On Thursday 1st October, the government announced that plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds are now banned in England. This is welcome news for many with concerns over single-use plastic and its wide-ranging environmental impacts, with England using an estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds each year. So how much difference will this make? And how can science help our society to use plastic more sustainably? Taylor Uekert is a plastics expert and member of the CirPlas (circular plastics) research group at Cambridge University, and Adam Murphy and Katie Haylor asked her about the ban...
Taylor - So it's definitely a great first step. The thing about a lot of these plastics is: a) they can't be recycled because they're too small, so they fall through the sorting equipment, and often it's just not economically viable to recycle them; and b) when they do leak into the environment, they can cause a huge amount of problems for wildlife and the oceans. Because they're so small, they break down easily; they're brightly coloured, they look like food, and so a lot of creatures will end up eating them and that causes problems later. So it's a really good first step in terms of getting us to think about what single use plastics are necessary and which ones aren't, and how we can cut them out of our lives. But it's still just a first step. Overall these straws and stirrers probably account for less than 0.1% of marine plastic pollution. So there's still a long way to go in terms of addressing this huge issue.
Adam - But what about for people who can't drink without a plastic straw? Are there any accommodations being made for those people?
Taylor - Yes, definitely. So people with disabilities or other medical reasons for needing a plastic straw to drink - they will still be able to access these materials.
Adam - How come now, in 2020, with everything that's going on, why is so much plastic not getting reused or recycled?
Taylor - So there's a few reasons behind that. One is that we just have a huge diversity of plastics. So when you look at all of the things in your recycling bin, you might actually see that they all have different labels, and each of those different types of plastic has to be recycled separately. And this is not always straightforward in terms of separating them out and then recycling them. So that's the first issue. And the second issue is just that single use plastics are still just really convenient; especially now with coronavirus they're essential in many cases. And so replacing them with a more sustainable reuse or refill model does take commitment, and it's something we haven't quite managed to do yet.
Katie - In addition to just using less, your group are exploring a few different avenues; what particular solution have you been working on?
Taylor - What I work on is a sunlight driven method for turning plastic waste into hydrogen fuel. The cool thing about this is it's really simple, you only need four components: plastic, water, sunlight, and a photocatalyst, which is just a material that uses the energy in sunlight to make a chemical reaction happen faster. So you combine all of these different ingredients and the photocatalyst ends up breaking down your plastic and water, and releasing hydrogen which we could potentially use as a green fuel.
Katie - What's the yield, or how long does it take to do?
Taylor - It's still a very slow process. We're at the beginning of this research. It probably takes about a month to break down half of the plastic, but it's something we're really working on and trying to push that further.
Katie - Are you hopeful that you'll be able to scale it up in terms of time efficiency and how much you get out of it?
Taylor - Yes, definitely. We've done some initial experiments going from these small pieces of plastic, like two centimetres, up to something 50 times larger; and we're hoping to go further and build a rooftop demonstrator to show this is feasible on a larger scale.