Reimagining the future of plastics

By Deborah LauMarch 18th, 2021

With our oceans littered with trillions of pieces of rubbish, how do we solve the plastic pollution crisis?
CSIRO's Deborah Lau looking at the camera with her hands in a bag of small fragments of plastic

CSIRO’s Deborah Lau is leading our mission in development to end plastic waste.

Each year, 90 billion tonnes of primary materials are extracted to meet global demand for plastic products, with only 9 per cent recycled. An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic flows into the world’s oceans annually. CSIRO research shows an estimated 14 million tonnes of microplastics has accumulated on the seafloor.

Despite these staggering figures of how much plastic is lost in the environment, there are few signs of reprieve as global plastic production catapults towards an increase of 36 per cent or more over the next five years, and a potential doubling by 2030.

Currently, there is little economic value in the recovery of plastics from the environment, which means that when it ends up there, it is likely to stay.

This can have devastating impacts. Our research has shown that plastic ingestion in seabirds could reach 95 per cent of all species by 2050. Turtles that ingest just one piece of plastic have a 22 per cent chance of dying. Flexible plastics, such as plastic sheets, bags and packaging, can cause gut blockage and are responsible for the greatest number of deaths for a range of marine animals, such as whales and dolphins.

Turtle eating a jellyfish, or is it plastic?

Plastic pollution in our oceans can have devastating consequences for marine life, as they mistake it for food.

Our plastic waste problem is only going to get worse without significant intervention and a substantial system change. We need to treat plastic like a resource and a commodity, rather than as waste.

Plastic recovery and packaging targets

With international exports of Australian waste now regulated through the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020, the time is now to address this transboundary problem. This will be particularly important for economies like Australia, where essentially 60 per cent of the plastic products consumed are as imported finished goods.

Our science will help support Australia’s target of a national resource recovery target of 80 per cent by 2030. It will also support Australia’s National Plastics Plan announced this month, which aims to achieve 100 per cent of packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Tackling the plastic pollution problem

Science has revealed the true damage caused by plastic that enters our oceans via nature’s conveyor belts – rivers. That’s why we’re using artificial intelligence to accelerate our understanding of the plastic pollution issue, both in Australia and across the globe.

Combining cameras with Microsoft custom vision and machine learning technologies, we can efficiently detect and monitor rubbish in our waterways. Object recognition tools can identify how much and the types of rubbish in our rivers. We’re applying this research in Hobart, as well as in London and Dhaka. This will inform waste management strategies to prevent pollution ending up in our waterways.

AI technology being used on the computer to identify rubbish

Developed with Microsoft, we are using Artificial Intelligence to identify and track rubbish in waterways.

We are also applying machine learning to prevent rubbish travelling from stormwater drains into our oceans. Working with councils in Tasmania, we are using an automated sensor network for gross pollutant traps to optimise infrastructure operations and to prevent pollution leaking into the environment. This is creating change on a local level, with far reaching potential. It is a win for the community and the environment.

In the corporate world, change is also afoot. Large multinational companies are offering substantial investment to enact change. Commitments to reduce virgin plastic use by bottling and packaging companies will be critical in reducing new plastic inputs into the system.

Nestlé has committed to 100 per cent of its packaging being reusable or recyclable by 2025, as has Amcor. iQ Renew commits to be the first company in Australia to combine physical and chemical recycling of plastic, enabling the recycling of virtually all plastic. McDonald’s restaurants have also stopped providing plastic straws to customers.

Changing our relationship with plastics

Behavioural change is needed to reduce plastic in our environment. Our research has shown that incentive schemes for plastic recycling are extremely effective in diverting the path of plastic to specialist recycling facilities.

Regulatory interventions on single-use plastic bags has been the most common tool currently being used across Australia, with major Australian supermarket retailers joining local governments nationwide to take up the challenge through affirmative action to ban the bags. Container deposit schemes introduced by State Governments have also proved successful to divert plastic from landfill.

South Australia has implemented a ban on the sale, supply and distribution of single-use plastic products. Queensland is following suit and is also set to ban disposable plastic straws, plates and cutlery. Victoria has announced it will ban the sale and supply of single-use plastics by February 2023.

Coles Supermarkets is also introducing a ban on selling single-use tableware and cutlery products. It’s estimated this will reduce the amount of single use plastic in landfill by 1.5 million kilograms a year.

These decisions will help reduce waste, prevent animal death and save our oceans.

Placing a plastic bottle in a recycling bin

Behavioural change and incentives, such as container deposit schemes and improved recycling rates, will help reduce plastic ending up in the environment.

Plastic recovery not a wasted opportunity

We cannot recycle our way out of this mess, but recycling and other advanced recovery technologies have a critical part to play.

At CSIRO we are working with Standards Australia and Plastics Stewardship Australia, an initiative of Chemistry Australia, to create standardised processes for recycling and managing waste. We’re also looking at how people make decisions, so we can optimise waste infrastructure and encourage people to do the right thing and put rubbish in the bin. This will contribute to the overall framework of how Australia manages its waste, including the life cycle of plastics.

We need to review our approach to used plastic products being a waste and maximise its value as a resource.

Plastic-tastic initiatives

How can we generate new waste products that are safe and economically sound? We need best practices that address food safety for recycled plastics; we need labelling that helps avoid consumer confusion on what can be recycled; we need technical specifications on recycling processes to avoid contamination; and we need stable market demand for recycled products.

To increase the amount of waste Australia recycles and reuses, we need to find new ways of financing the infrastructure needed for waste collection and ongoing operations.

Large containers of different coloured plastic tube

Changes to how we make, reuse and recycle plastics will help transform plastic waste into a commodity and support Australia’s circular economy.

The Australian Government’s Recycling Monetary Investment is a first step to drive Australia’s waste and recycling industry out of its infancy. Investment will build value in recyclable plastics, reduce the need for virgin materials entering the system and drive forward a closed-loop system.

A circular approach

We are committed to bringing our science to the real world with tangible benefits for government and industry, which spans the entire plastics supply chain. Together with our partners, we are developing a mission to end plastic waste and build a circular economy for plastics.

It is well documented that single-solution strategies cannot stop plastic pollution. We are catalysing on collaborations, technology development and scientific information to support decision making to change the way we make, use, recycle and dispose of plastics.

As part of the Ending Plastic Waste Mission in development, we are addressing key areas: monitoring plastics in our environment; revolutionising plastic packaging including improving biodegradable plastics and enzymes that break down polymers; creating standards for better recycling processes; and information and data for decision-making.

Innovation is essential for a future with near-zero plastic pollution. Bringing researchers, government, industry and the community together will support a circular plastics approach to drive a new plastics economy and create opportunities for Australia’s future waste industry.

We all interact with plastic. Once it leaves a person’s hands it can have detrimental impacts to our land, coasts and our oceans. We can shift our relationship to plastics through better and effective design, sustainable use, reliable recycling and creative remanufacturing.

Looking after our environment delivers economic, environmental, and societal benefits. Australia can be a world leader in how we manage plastic waste and recycling. The time is now to turn our attention to tackling plastic pollution and generating solutions.

Dr Deborah Lau is CSIRO’s Ending Plastic Waste Mission Lead.

4 comments

  1. Great work you are doing there Deb!

  2. Fantastic! There is genuine hope for a plastic free future!

  3. The problem with plastic is clear. What is now needed is specific ways to value add to recycled plastics. What research has gone into plastic water tanks to retrofit old houses with storm water tanks to flush toilets especially in country areas where water is scarce. This could be a similar roll out to the solar panel project.
    Secondly the Garbage Warrior has clearly demonstrated that housing can be built from waste products. What forward planning, demonstration how this can be down. Yes Deb we could be world leaders but we need concrete ways to use waste plastics. We should be smart enough to do away with landfills. As you know, in nature there is no waste. We are nature. We should have no waste. Please come up with ideas on how to use all our waste because we have to get to that cradle to cradle living. Thank you 🙏 for your work. We need everyone to solve our enviro issues. I am an ideas person but no ability to bring to fruition.

  4. If only we could find more ways to use the plastic we have. I avoid purchasing plastic as much as I can but I still seem to have heaps that I drop off at the Supermarket collection points. I just hope and pray that plastic gets recycled and not dumped. Is someone keeping the supermarkets honest?

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