Will we solve the plastics problem?

06 February 2018

Interview with

Steven Lee, Cambridge University and Toby McCartney, MacRebur

What are some ways we might reduce plastic use in future? Chris Smith and Georgia Mills discuss various ideas with guests Toby McCartney and Steven Lee...

Georgia - I guess throughout the show we’ve found a lot of things people are working on but there doesn’t seem to be any kind of silver bullet on the horizon here, so I suppose what I’ve learned is that I just need to reduce the amount of plastic I use. And Chris, you an me should both hang our heads in shame because we’ve both brought in plastic wrapped food!

Chris - We were discussing this before the programme because Steven, we offered him some cake and he didn’t want any, but I brought in cake of the week covered in clingfilm, Georgia turned up with brownies. Both foodstuffs are delicious but, unfortunately, they’re covered with environmentally extremely unfriendly and not on programme message coatings and packaging. It’s a classic case of do what I say, not what I do.

Georgia - Steven I’m curious, do you have any top tips on reducing our own plastic consumption?

Steven - It’s not what one would consider traditional but one way you could reduce your plastic use is to think about trying to use alternative forms of transport, things like electric cars. When we take crude oil out of the ground the majority of that oil is used to make petrol, but all of the stuff that’s left over is the feedstock for our plastics, so we can reduce our need and our demand for the petrochemical industry we're decreasing our need to be able to use this byproduct to turn it into plastic.

Georgia - That’s a really interesting point. I hadn’t really thought of that the fact that plastic is being used from a byproduct so why not turn it into something?

Steven - Absolutely.

Chris - The other point, because someone said to me the other day Steven, I don’t know what our take is on this that we should just package all these things we see in the supermarkets in paper, for example. But then I pointed out, and maybe you can tell me if I’m right, that you’ve got to factor in that if I package the foodstuff in plastic it lasts longer. It has a longer shelf life therefore we’re probably going to throw away less food, and we know that rearing meat is incredibly bad for the environment in terms of carbon emissions, transportation of the meat, disposal safely of waste food, and so on. So it’s not just as simple as what we use to package stuff up is it?

Steven - Absolutely. What you really want to think about is the total energy content so that includes everything as you say. Quite often might use their carbon footprints in a similar kind of quantity, so how much energy is required to make not just your apple but your apple packaging and put it in a truck and move it from the other side of the world. That’s the thing you want to minimise and so there’s a lot of interest into being able to use local food because what you’re doing there is reducing your energy footprint, and ultimately the goal of these things is to reduce the amount of energy required to produce these packaging materials.

Chris - Can we just bring in Toby at this point - toby from MacReber. Is this sort of analysis the kind of thing that you did when you were considering the impact of doing the impact assessment for your road surfacing project?

Toby - Yeah. We look at our business from a carbon emissions standpoint. Unfortunately, the construction industry is pretty bad for releasing carbon emissions in everything that it does.

Chris - 40% of the world’s CO2 is from concrete isn’t it?

Toby - Yeah, that’s right. We’re looking to reduce those by using less bitumen. We’ve worked out that we save a ton of carbon emissions for every ton of bitumen that we replace, which is quite hefty really.

Georgia - Steven, do you have any points on Toby’s business.

Steven - Yeah. I think the interesting point here is that I don’t think anyone is trying to reduce plastic use completely, and I think that’s an important point. There’s always going to be a need to be able to use it. It’s a wonderful material that we have and to think that it’s all bad under all conditions is wrong. I think what you want to do is think about a way to stimulate the economics of such, such that if we do really need disposable plastics that we make biodegradable plastics more economically viable in which case all of the problems will go away because people will instantly switch to these more renewable sources.

Georgia - Toby, will that spell trouble for you if you used up all the plastic in the landfill?

Toby - Unfortunately for the rest of the world if we stop producing plastic today, MacReber, we would still have enough to lay every road, every new road around the world just with the waste that we produce at the moment. So stopping it isn’t going to stop our business so we would love it to be stopped because we’re on a mission to stop the plastic epidemic as we call it, but it won’t have any impact on our business.

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