Library picture showing plastic bag in ocean that looks like iceberg

Plastic pollution solutions and our new compostable wrap

Image credit: Getty Images

How can engineering and technology help tackle the world's plastics problem? And how is E&T doing its bit to help?

Plastics were the materials that shaped the 20th century. Invented well over 100 years ago, they really took off mid-century as the range grew, engineers found more applications, and designers learnt how to use the material to its best advantage. As the young Ben (played by Dustin Hoffman) was advised in the 1967 film ‘The Graduate’, “there’s a great future in plastics”. At the risk of sounding like a boring uncle, however unappealing that idea was to young people of the time, it was actually sound career advice. 

Manufacturers have now made a tonne of plastics for every person alive in the world today. Plastics are everywhere – and unfortunately just about everywhere they shouldn’t be. The proliferation of plastics created an environmental crisis, especially for our oceans and wildlife. Can engineering help to clean them up? Can technology provide the alternatives to plastics? These are some of the issues we look at in our special coverage from this month's issue.

Rebecca Northfield sets the scene by looking at the scale and spread of the problem. China is looking like the worst polluter; it has started to turn down recycling imports from Europe and is now faced with its own home-grown plastics mountain. Chris Edwards examines the hardest plastics to replace while Hilary Lamb investigates the growing controversy around silicones. Rebecca Pool takes a look at alternatives emerging from the labs, and we consider edible packaging. 

We’re trying to do our little bit on E&T too. From this issue onwards, we have switched to compostable starch-based wrappers made from food waste potatoes. Some readers spotted a contradiction in the last issue when it landed on their doormats. The IET was advertising a competition to help solve the plastics pollution problem, in a band wrapped around the issue, while the whole magazine was enclosed in a polythene wrapper. We agreed that we would like to do more and our publisher the IET decided to invest in a compostable wrapper. 

March 2019 issue in wrapper

Readers spotted the contradiction in our last issue

Image credit: E&T

Just considering this change underlines how complex the economics of recycling are. Our previous wrapper was recyclable – but only via special bins found at locations such as outside supermarkets. If you do a weekly supermarket shop in a real store anyway, perhaps it’s reasonably environmentally friendly to take your used bags and wrappers with you when you go. Otherwise, it’s likely to end up in a black sack for landfill or incineration. 

There are other factors to consider, including shipping the wrappers, the options for overseas readers and much more. All in all, we decided changing would be better for the environment. But we are always questioning and this issue we investigate biodegradable wrappers to find out if they’re as good as they’re meant to be. Maybe not, but they will decompose in time and so you can be sure they won’t end up in the ocean wrapped around any turtles.

We still need readers to dispose of them responsibly though. Don’t put it in your kerbside recycling. Put it in your food waste bin, on your compost heap or, as I will, fill it with kitchen scraps to toss into the wormery.

growth in world plastics production from 1950 to 2015

World plastics production growth

Image credit: E&T / Geyer

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