The backlash against plastics is raising some serious issues for design engineers

2 min read

Plastics have been a mainstay of product design for so long that the idea of living without them – or even reducing their use – is almost unthinkable. The advantages of plastic are clear: almost infinite adaptability in terms of shape; light weight; durability; and aesthetic finish. However, the problems are increasingly clear as well.

In January, the government launched its 25-year environment plan, which aims to eliminate all ‘avoidable plastic waste’ by the end of 2042. To help achieve this goal, carrier bag charges were extended to all retailers in England, and government is working with supermarkets to encourage plastic-free aisles in supermarkets.

The TV series Blue Planet II also served to highlight the fatal impact plastics can have on sea creatures and how degraded plastic has made its way into the human food chain.

Needless to say, this has led to a wider backlash against plastics. The public is increasingly bombarded with the message that disposable plastics are at best undesirable and at worst actively unethical.

Clearly, this places design engineers in something of a bind. Pressure is already being exerted on companies to abandon non-recyclable plastics in their products, which means that briefs are reaching design engineers that reflect this.

To address this situation, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) has launched ‘Plastics: A Vision for a Circular Economy’ — a document outlining a range of key proposals intended to drive innovation in the plastics sector and improve UK recycling rates. The headline measures announced by the BPF are part of a new industry vision to ensure 100% of plastic packaging and single-use items are reused, recycled or recovered by 2030.

To help achieve these aims, the plastics industry has already proposed extending and revising the current Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system. The BPF believes that the current PRN system should be extended to include plastic items that are not packaging products but are products used in conjunction with food and drink consumed ‘on the go’, such as cutlery or straws.

However, revisions to the current system need to support the development of the UK’s recycling infrastructure. Evidence suggests that collaborative work is also needed to deliver anti-littering, behaviour-change and educational campaigns to maximise recycling and stop plastic entering the marine environment.

The document also explains how the plastics industry wants to help deliver a streamlined recycling system, simplifying communication and eliminating confusion for the consumer. Evidence suggests that adopting consistent collection schemes by all councils throughout the UK (both kerbside and ‘on the go’) would be a major step forwards.

The BPF will also consult its members with the aim of agreeing a traffic light system and best practice design tools. It is hoped that this will encourage brands and retailers to make the best decisions when designing their products.

Philip Law, director-general of the BPF, said: “Plastic waste is an urgent issue and all of us have a shared responsibility to do something about it. As an industry, we want to play our part in reducing plastic waste so we leave the environment in a better place for generations to come.”