About this Research Topic
The Plastics Problem, our inaugural series, will focus on the following themes:
- Investigating Socio-economic Dimensions of Plastic Pollution
- Plastic Waste Management Strategies for Circular Economy
- Engineering Solutions and Material Innovation for Plastic Waste Prevention
Plastic has received much attention in the last decade, but most headlines are about plastic pollution in the environment. This is only a small portion of the story. Plastic has impacts that go unnoticed, which are related to the whole life-cycle, from the obtention of the raw materials to create the pellets until the end of life of plastic products. Plastic manufacturing, trading, and consumption all utilise fossil fuels, which negatively impact people, communities, the environment and contribute to climate change. As we have become better at using less oil and gas to power our lives, the fossil fuel sector has found a lifeline in plastics. Furthermore, the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic has influenced the manufacturing, consumption, and use of disposable, single-use plastics.
The increased production and use of single-use plastics products such as food takeaway containers and packaging for online sales could jeopardise recent efforts to reduce plastic pollution and move to a more sustainable and circular plastics system in the short term. Many efforts to combat plastic pollution have mainly concentrated on improving waste management, cleaning up extant pollution or ecodesigning products. Others have focused on bans and incentivised reductions in plastic consumption. None of these will work in isolation. We must prioritise rethinking what and how materials enter the supply chain, improving our ability to keep plastic in the loop after it has been used. By treating plastic as a commodity rather than as waste, we can fundamentally change the game.
Conversely, if current plastic production and use trends continue at current levels, by 2040, the volume of plastic on the market will double, the annual volume of plastic entering the ocean will almost triple, and the ocean plastic stocks will quadruple.
Plastic is one of the most cost-effective materials on the market, and it is essential to modern society. Its widespread use does, however, have severe environmental, social and climate consequences. The current cost of plastic products ignores a slew of mainly hidden externalities that ultimately fall on governments, people, and the environment. Plastic pollution is a problem that begins long before it reaches the environment, and so must be the solution. Life-cycle assessments (LCAs) are sometimes being applied to justify increasing the use of single-use plastic packaging. Indeed, industry representatives argue that regulating plastic packaging will harm the environment because plastic is a lightweight material that emits less CO2 than proposed alternatives such as glass, paper, and metal. However, while in theory, LCA considers a product’s total environmental impact over its entire life cycle, in practice, the scope varies depending on how practitioners define system boundaries.
Thus, there is a need to estimate the true cost of plastics, considering the market price of virgin plastic manufacture and the costs of greenhouse gas emissions derived from the manufacture of plastic products, transports, waste management, and damage to marine life and terrestrial ecosystems. Reducing such impacts while keeping plastics useful necessitates a shift toward a more circular and sustainable plastics system. Usually, we put recycling on top of everything, but today, it comes in last on the 5 R process. These R’s include: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle. This is an important approach to reduce waste and develop a plastics circular economy. This circularity also includes the application of smart logistics to maximise the potential discarded plastic and the development of new business models. This ultimately lessens the amount of waste that will end up in landfills and the environment. National and international policy changes like the European Strategy for Plastics and the EU Sustainable Product Strategy, focus on the early stages of this plastic pipeline (namely on refuse, reduce and reuse), place emphasis on avoiding waste altogether by making redefining how plastics are designed, produced and used to lay the foundations for a new more circular plastic economy.
This Research Topic looks at plastics production, consumption and trade, and plastics’ environmental and climate impact at various points during their life cycle. We are looking for contributions indicating pathways for the way ahead, including smarter use of plastics, increased circularity, alternatives to fossil-based polymers, the use of renewable raw materials, and international actions to ensure the effective and equitable application of solutions that can take place on a global scale. We would also like to explore the transition towards a circular plastics economy involving policymakers, industry, scientists, and consumers.
The scope of this Research Topic includes, but is not limited to:
● Successful examples of ‘5R’ approaches to circularise the plastic waste economy/valorising plastic (i.e. treating plastic as a commodity rather than waste).
● Actions that can be taken to implement circular business models for plastics effectively.
● End-of-life plastic solutions to mitigate and control plastic pollution
● Examples of successful EPR schemes that promotes the circularity
● Alternative materials to plastic (e.g biopolymers) and their challenges to promote the reduction of plastics entering the value chain
● International agreements that facilitate solutions to plastic pollution equitably.
● Examples of policies around the world targeting the minimization of plastic consumption
● Policies to promote the mitigation of plastic pollution
● Risk assessment of plastic pollution on biodiversity.
● Sustainability assessment (environmental, economic and/or social) of plastic products in comparison to available alternatives.
● Plastic and its additives impact on biodiversity and its contribution to climate change.
● Environmental and socio-economic impacts of plastic pollution
Accepted manuscript types include Original Research, Review, Policy and Practice Reviews, Conceptual Analysis, Perspective, Policy Brief, Data Report, General Commentary, and Opinion
Keywords: Climate change, plastic consumption, circular economy, ecosystems, fossil fuels, life-cycle assessment, plastic policy development
Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.