What is the future of plastic?

How do we sustainably make use of this wonder material going forward?
29 November 2021

Interview with 

Fredric Bauer, Lund University

FUTURE_HEALTHCARE

Medical apparatus floating above an outstretched hand.

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Fredric Bauer from Lund University is an expert in plastics policy and recently published an article titled ‘Plastic Dinosaurs.’ Verner Viisainen spoke to him to find about more about the future of plastics and what we all can do about it...

Verner - We heard from Nicola De Blasio earlier about how plastics are everywhere in our modern society. But how did we end up in this position?

Fredric - The history of modern plastics is one that really took off after the second world war. In the 1950s, the petrochemical industry emerged and identified plastics. as a very interesting group of materials and really worked hard to find new ways of using plastics in many different domains of our everyday lives

Verner - Are the fossil fuel and petrochemical companies just responding to consumer demand, given how useful plastic is as a material?

Fredric - I would not say it's fair to say that production is only responding to demand. Rather there has been a very strategic effort to create demand and to shape demand in ways that really use plastics to a very large extent.

Verner - Judith Enck was mentioning that fossil fuel companies see plastics as their 'plan B' as the demand for petrol and fuel goes down. Do you agree with this?

Fredric - Yes. One of the trends we are seeing is that demand for plastics and other petrochemicals is one of the key drivers for oil and gas, now that the markets for petrol and diesel are decreasing more and more, we see oil firms investing very strategically, either themselves or in partnerships with plastics and petrochemicals producers. So they for sure seem to be betting on this as the plan B.

Verner - Earlier, we also heard about the extensive emissions that occur during the production of plastics. I know you use this concept of carbon lock-in in your work. Could you explain what carbon lock-in is and how this relates to the projected emissions from plastics?

Fredric - Carbon lock-in is a concept that connects the idea that technologies are used for specific purposes, but they are also strongly linked to regulations, institutions, and practices in society. Technology's become so embedded and they become part of our infrastructure for everyday life. Once we have created this path for how we use plastics, it's very hard to diverge from it. Instead it becomes self-reinforcing and the foundation for the carbon lock-in in plastics is that plastics are almost exclusively produced from fossil fuels. We are locked in to using fossil intensive plastics in many, many different ways in our everyday lives.

Verner - Given the problems we've heard associated with plastic, do we need to get rid of them altogether?

Fredric - I don't think that we should say that we can get rid of them. That would be foolish knowing that plastics are useful in many applications. However, we need to think carefully about where we use plastics to reduce demand growth.

Verner - Earlier in the show, I compared plastics to doughnuts in the sense that they both provide a useful function, but if used excessively, they can be detrimental to our environment and/or our health. How do we use plastics in a healthy way going forward?

Fredric - We need to think where we really need these properties that plastics have. We need to think about what it is that we really want to use these materials for, knowing that there are often many choices whether those be plastics, steel, other metals, which one would be most sensible to use in that particular application and which one would have the lowest environmental and climate impact. And that's a sort of trade off that we have to think of.

Verner - Could you give some examples of sensible or essential applications where we still need plastics going forward?

Fredric - Yes. I think it's fair to say that it's difficult to see modern health care, for example, completely without plastics, but there's still the question to what degree we want to use plastics, how much of the equipment that we use has to be single use and how much can be reduced sterilized, et cetera?

Verner - Earlier in the show we heard from Lee Bell about how plastic recycling might not be a suitable solution on its own to the plastic problem. Do you agree with this? And if so, what else should we be doing?

Fredric - Yes, the recycling systems that we have developed and deployed so far are not suitable for dealing with plastics in the way that we used them today. So just saying that we should scale up the recycling that we have, that will not be sufficient. That's quite clear. Instead, we really need to think about where and how we use plastics from the start. I think we should think about our consumption practices and how they relate to this exploding use of plastics, for example, textiles, where our consumption of clothes has exploded in the recent decades. That is to a very large degree connected to the availability of cheap polyester. So what do we really need to consume in terms of fast fashion, for example. On the other hand, I think it's also very important to see that this is not something that we are going to solve at the individual level. Rather, we really need to think about how to put pressure on the system.

Verner - If you had one recommendation for what individuals can do to put pressure on the system, what would it be?

Fredric - We should all recycle our consumables, but that's really just the bare minimum. What we can do instead is to get organized in different ways to put pressure on policymakers, decision makers, larger firms, that they should make the necessary changes on the higher level for how we really use plastics.

Verner - Just to end. What do you see as the future of plastics?

Fredric - Unfortunately, what we are seeing is that the industry is still to a large degree betting on unabated use of plastics and if we don't challenge that, it's likely that we will see this perhaps even quadrupling and demand for plastics. It would be based on primarily fossil sources with recycling, being a very niche marginal activity. However, there is also the opportunity that we can change it. We do have agency and we can shape our future in a different way than just extending these unsustainable patterns from the past, but that does require action on many levels. So in an ideal scenario, we are able to transform the way that we choose plastics to primarily use recycled plastics through different forms, but also then produce some virgin plastics for more sustainable sources.
 

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