Helena Dahlbo, SYKE: Better recycling helps mitigate the problems with plastics

News 2018-01-19 at 14:51
Helena Dahlbo 285 163

Plastics are widely used in societies like ours, and for good reason. They’re extremely versatile – lightweight, stretchable, rigid, tight, and even breathable if necessary. Because packaging accounts for the vast majority of plastics use, packaging also creates the largest plastic waste streams.  Both bio-based and biodegradable materials have been developed to replace plastics in packaging, for example to reduce the accumulation of rubbish on land and waterways. So far, however, there isn’t enough knowledge of the overall impact of these alternative materials on the environment. Biodegradability is tested under conditions that are not found naturally, so these materials might not necessarily turn out to be good alternatives to plastics. 

The problems caused by plastics are mainly due to the fact that we don’t control their use or material cycle. We all need to play our part in closing the plastic cycle. Collection of domestic plastic packaging began in Finland in 2017, and there is a demand for separately collected and sorted recycled raw materials. Nevertheless, there’s still much to be done when it comes to sorting, both by consumers and by organisers of plastic collections.

There are still many questions about the management of plastic cycles that can only be answered by continued research and development. Product designers play a key role in developing methods of managing plastic flows. Products need to be designed to be durable, repairable and recyclable. Producers that are responsible for collection of packaging have to develop and expand their collection operations so that plastic packaging can be recovered and recycled more extensively than at present. Us consumers can make a difference through our individual choices: we can buy products with care and only as needed, and we can buy durable and reparable items instead of disposable ones. 

Read the full text from Viewpoints blog

Senior research scientist Helena Dahlbo 
Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE)