“Plastic Isn’t The Problem”, Marine Litter Expert Tells #RTF18 Delegates

Plastic isn’t the problem when it comes to plastics in the marine environment, the issue comes from how plastic is used and disposed of. This was the message from marine litter expert, Richard Thompson OBE, on day two of Resourcing the Future 2018.

Addressing delegates, Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, University of Plymouth, said the issue of waste, in particular plastic waste in the marine environment, has never been higher on the Government’s agenda and never more in the focus of the public.

But with this, there’s a risk of a “knee jerk” reaction, which could lead to unintended consequences, instead of looking at the “right decision”.

Opening with some alarming statistics, Professor Thompson revealed:

  • Between 2015 and 2025, plastics in the oceans will triple.
  • Our plastic waste has beaten us to depths of the ocean never been before visited by man.
  • Beach litter actually has a “depressing” effect on people.
  • 40% of plastics is destined for single-use.
  • 95% percent of the sea bird species Northern Fulmer has plastic particles in its gut.

However, despite this, Professor Thompson’s message was clear — plastics are useful; they’re lightweight, durable and versatile. The challenge is how to keep the benefits of plastics without suffering the negative consequences.

However, despite this, Professor Thompson’s message was clear — plastics are useful; they’re lightweight, durable and versatile. The challenge is how to keep the benefits of plastics without suffering the negative consequences.

Plastic debris is a symptom of an inefficient and outdated business model, he told delegates, and it’s not directly coupled to “societal benefits”. He outlined the issue developing countries have due to poor waste management, and the issue in developed countries due to an increased amount of waste.

There are solutions, he said… but there is no single solution.

Professor Thompson said, for him, it’s not about taking actions such as plastics free supermarket aisles, where we can potentially lose the usefulness of plastic in mitigating food waste, it’s about addressing the problem at the design stage, ensuring products are designed with end of life in mind, and moving the material in the most circular way possible.

Appropriate waste management is part of the solution, he said, and when asked if there was room for the marine sector and the resources sector to collaborate to “fill the research gap”, he said this was “essential”.

When asked about the role bioplastics have to play, he conceded they’re part of the solution but not a silver bullet, and that to be truly helpful they need to be designed in a way that means they will degrade in the natural environment. How this can be done while retaining integrity during its use, however, remains to be discovered.

Professor Thompson concluded his keynote session by answering a question about what we can do to clean up the plastics that already litter the oceans. He said this has the potential to be a massive business opportunity, but we can’t take it out faster than it’s going in, so we have to first turn off the tap.


 

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  1. Prof Thompson is not “getting it”.
    The negatives of plastics outweigh positives, and we have to deal with that.
    Lurking in the background of his speech is the fact that not putting plastics in the sea would slow down the flow, but shifting attitudes is harder than producing less.
    It’s up to the plastics industry to prevent cutting of the branch they’re sitting on.

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