PLASTIC, shifting from convenience to the curse, what do our experts say

20 July 2022

As part of #plasticfreejuly, we asked several environmental experts, Chris Hines, Michael Pawlyn, Sally Uren and Hannah Pathak, for their opinions about plastics and where we are in terms of reducing plastic pollution. They offered some amazing insights about this issue.   

Plastic was a revolutionary invention in the 1950s. Plastic itself has fantastic qualities; it is cheap, light, waterproof, resistant and offers huge flexibility. Nowadays, we see plastic everywhere, the cooker in your kitchen, the pen you use to take daily notes or the bottle of shampoo you used this morning, our laptops, tablets and phones, probably what you are using to read this very article. 

Some astonishing and disheartening facts include: 

- A single plastic bottle takes 450 years to biodegrade. 

- By 2025, the ocean is expected to contain 1 tonne of plastics for every 3 tonnes of fish and the WWF estimates that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the sea (by weight). 

- 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs, and half of the marine turtles have eaten some form of plastic. Sea life can choke on plastic rubbish and gets tangled in it, and plastic contributes to the breakdown of coral reefs.  

- Us Londoners are among the UK's highest consumers of bottled water, drinking 175 bottles per person per year and over one billion on a city level. However, only about 50% of these bottles are ever recycled; the rest ends up as litter, often making their way into the River Thames from where they flow out to sea.  

- It's a significantly under-reported issue, but the manufacturing and use of plastics has been linked to dramatic declines in average sperm count. Among men from North America, Europe and Australia, it declined by 50-60% in a single generation. The trend appears to be linear, declining by 1.4% per year, and if it continues, is likely to reach what is generally regarded as the lowest fertility threshold around 2030.  

What is the big issue?   

Sally, Hannah and Chris all agreed that the big problem is single-use plastic or products made from multiple types of plastic that are not designed to deconstruct back to their element parts. To address this, Chris emphasised the first step is to understand your plastic footprint very crudely. Be aware of it and then look at those uses and see if you can follow the traditional waste hierarchy: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But then expand on that and add in Refuse – ask yourself, do you even need it?.  

Replacing plastic with throwaway alternatives such as leaves, wood, paper, and bioplastic is an option to help transition to a non-plastic-based system. It keeps the convenience of packaging, meaning not having to rely on a fundamental shift in consumer behaviour. Nevertheless, it's impossible to put a hard stop on plastic usage immediately. Michael Pawlyn recommended a move from conventional sustainability, which has tended to focus on mitigating negatives (essentially trying to be "less bad"), towards a regenerative mindset that strives to deliver net positive benefits across a range of criteria.  

In their #Oneless research, Sally and Hannah said we should:   

- Stop buying, selling and using single-use plastic water bottles.

- Encourage and facilitate the use of refillable water bottles. 

- Offer unrestricted access to tap/drinking water and encourage its use.

- Inspire others to go #OneLess and create their own refill revolutions.   

How do our experts think we can make our workspace more sustainable?  

Again, Chris said understanding your plastic footprint in the office by running a waste and resource audit of where you work (as well as your home and personal life) is very important. Encourage your employees to cut down on plastic waste by setting up a waste and sustainability working group.  

In our recent In Conversation With video, the sustainable architect, Charlie Luxton, also said we have many alternatives for plastic, such as foam glasses, blown aggregates, wood fibre, blown cellulose and second-hand wood to build our office.   

We have a lot of power to progressively move more towards sustainability than you might have ever thought possible. It is important to remember, and every little conscious act helps.  

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