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The problem with Plastic Free July

Shea Karssing from Smarter Technologies discusses how the key to tackling the problems we face with plastic is not going to be solved by consumers using paper straws, but rather by big businesses making the right changes and a change in legislation.

Every year in July, people around the world take part in Plastic Free July, a global movement that aims to help millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution. The campaign aims to create a platform for people to share ideas to minimise plastic pollution, shift toward long term, environmentally friendly habits, and motivate people to be a part of the solution.

I fully support these objectives, and I don’t want to undermine the movement in any way. Reducing the amount of plastic being produced, used, and ending up in landfills and our environments is undoubtedly a massive step in the right direction. Ocean plastic is indeed a major environmental problem. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, we are going to have more kilograms of plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050 if current trends continue.

But the problems we are currently facing (anyone been outside lately?) aren’t going to be solved by forgoing plastic straws. Yes, every small action makes a difference, and we should all be doing everything we can to reduce our impact and carbon footprints. But these actions need to be a piece of a greater puzzle that every council, government, company and community is building towards better waste management overall.

One of the most significant contributors to plastic waste in the ocean (and in natural environments) is poor waste management. It is everyone’s responsibility to reduce waste wherever possible, and to find environmentally responsible ways of diverting waste from landfills and the oceans. But, when it comes to waste management infrastructure, the general public’s impact is limited, so we need the ‘big guys’ to step in.

We also shouldn’t neglect the effect of other waste items and pollutants; banning plastic isn’t the panacea to the world’s waste crisis. Even the World Economic Forum has admitted that ‘in trying to solve the plastic pollution problem, we may have created another problem: we are replacing plastic with materials that have a carbon footprint up to three times higher than plastics themselves, some of which are not even biodegradable in real life conditions’.

It is startling to learn that lifecycle assessments have shown that the single use plastic straw has nearly half the energy demand of polylactic acid (PLA) and paper straws.

But it is not all doom and pollution!

Waste avoidance and better waste management are now high on the agenda for many councils and municipalities around the world, and modern technology is enabling smart waste management solutions that reduce waste management costs, meet community expectations, and contribute to protecting the environment.

However, by and large, most of the world’s waste collection systems are still using outdated, inefficient methods, resulting in pick ups that are either long overdue, unnecessary, or not taking place at all. In addition, poorly planned routes create further inefficiencies and increased carbon footprints. So, what is the solution?

Internet of Things (IoT) technology can solve these and many other issues by creating more efficient waste management processes. For example, an IoT sensor can indicate to waste management teams when a bin actually needs to be emptied. Smart waste management solutions offer numerous benefits, including time saving, cost saving and a reduction in carbon footprint.

But in this article, we are talking specifically about what smarter waste management can do to prevent plastics and other waste products from ending up where they shouldn’t be:

  • Smart waste management means that waste is properly sorted, handled, and turned into recyclable assets. And with more and more plastic products designed to be recyclable, failing to do so is a massive missed opportunity.

  • Using real time data to prevent overflowing bins reduces environmental pollution.

  • The various smart waste processes can be integrated into an overall building management system, which allows for further automated control, analytics, and reporting. By analysing waste disposal patterns, managers will be able to identify the ‘common culprits’ that are generating high volumes of waste. The data can also be used to set targets for waste reduction.

  • By demonstrating greater transparency, cities, companies, and buildings will be able to demonstrate their ESG commitments and waste management improvements, ideally gaining buy-in (and budgets) for further waste reduction efforts.

Plastic is one of man’s greatest inventions. It even supports sustainable development goals, such as making cars more lightweight and insulating buildings. But there is a major caveat, because all the benefits of this material are jeopardised if plastic waste pollutes our environment. The real issues at hand are human behaviour and ineffective waste management and recycling systems. If these issues aren’t fixed, all our other efforts will have less impact. You can have a 100% recyclable product, but if it is not properly separated and moved to the right place, it lies to waste in a landfill or somewhere where it shouldn’t be.

I work for a technology company. So, for me, using smart waste management solutions makes the most sense, where accessible and feasible, of course.

Am I going to use plastic straws? No, who decided that we need a direct pipeline from a drink to our belly in the first place? And now that I have learnt and thought about the impact of plastic alternatives, I will sip sans straw as nature intended.

Shea Karssing is content manager at IoT company, Smarter Technologies. She specialises in writing about the intersection of technology, industry, and the environment in the modern day world.

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