There’s no silver bullet, so here’s why we need to be careful of repurposing plastic into other products.

By Jessica Beau Paul

The world is becoming increasingly aware of plastic pollution, and the race to find a sustainable solution is on. 

Some innovative businesses have come up with ways of repurposing plastics as sustainable alternatives. However, sometimes, what seems to be a ground-breaking solution may not be the silver bullet we all hope for.

For instance, Taranaki is melting its plastics into roading asphalt. On the surface, this seems to be revolutionary. The 90 metre strip of road leading to New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park now contains a half tonne of plastic – that’s the equivalent of 83,000 yoghurt pots.

What’s more, it’s no more expensive that regular asphalt, could potentially produce a better quality of roading AND uses plastics grade three to seven – the most difficult to get recycled.

At first glance this seems like a novel solution to eliminate the 200 tonnes of unwanted plastic in New Plymouth each year. Surely, that’s a win-win, right?

Maybe… our jury is still out. While it is certainly a way to repurpose unwanted plastics, such innovations could eventually end up as a dead end.  Products made from recycled plastics tend to have a habit of re-entering our food chain.

For example, clothing made from plastics sheds microfibres – tiny synthetic threads. Researchers suggest these fibres may be the biggest source of pollutants in the ocean. And much of it has come from our washing machines. This has a direct and negative effect on marine life and on us!

In terms of the plastic mix in asphalt – will it erode and eventually leave some form of plastic residue? We just don’t know – it’s too new to say. However, there is evidence to suggest we need to be cautious about this kind of plastic repurposing.

The point here, is that this requires us to change the way we use things. For instance, let’s take a quick look at the compostable coffee cup conundrum. We guzzle our way through 295 million single use coffee cups per year. Some wonderful innovations have been made with compostable packaging, however getting these cups to actually be composted can be a complex issue.

This is not to say we should give up and not innovate! However, it does mean we need to shift our gaze from repurposing plastic waste to eliminating plastic ‘waste’ entirely. It either needs to be switched to less toxic renewable options or kept in continuous cycles where it goes back into environmentally benign products.

Our top five solutions:

  1. Reduce plastic use, especially single use and the problematic stuff (i.e. plastic which easily escapes or leaks into the environment).
  2. Reusable and returnable models for packaging.
  3. Recycling needs to be more financially viable – preferably this involves ‘closed loop‘ recycling where the recycled material is used to make the same type of product (e.g. bottle to bottle).
  4. Some downcycling where recycled plastic is used to make a different type of product (typically with downcycling it becomes the end of the useful life of the plastic).
  5. Change our behaviour – meaning we all need to do our bit. Find ways to use less plastic. Find alternatives, re-use what plastic you have. Refuse products which have too much plastic packaging, especially packaging with small plastic components like ties and clips.