Oxford researchers comment on the plastic waste crisis for Earth Day 2024

Oxford researchers comment on the plastic waste crisis for Earth Day 2024

Each year, Earth Day acts as a reminder of the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability, encouraging us to come together and take action for the planet

For the 2024 Earth Day, taking place today, the theme is s ‘Planet vs Plastics.’ Oxford University researchers comment on the global plastic waste crisis, and the opportunities and challenges in moving to a sustainable plastics economy.

Dr April Burt, Department of Biology, University of Oxford, and Seychelles Islands Foundation, said:

The global plastics treaty gives us the opportunity to turn the tide on plastic pollution, from policy on the manufacture of plastics, to retailer responsibilities, and dealing with legacy plastics. Our work in Seychelles highlights the vast accumulation of marine plastic pollution bombarding the islands from both at-sea and international sources. This down-stream accumulation is taking its toll at both local and national level and cannot be ignored, especially in light of the accumulating evidence of the detrimental effects of plastic, microplastics, and plastic leachate on species and ecosystems.”

It is vital to ensure representatives from countries like Seychelles have a voice at these negotiations to communicate the eye-watering price tag of legacy plastics on their island ecosystems, both economically and ecologically, especially considering the transboundary nature of the marine plastic litter problem and the transboundary nature of the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity-rich islands.”

Dr Amani Maalouf, Senior Researcher in the Oxford Sustainable Finance Group at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, said:

Land-based sources are responsible for 80% of marine litter, with 85% of it being plastic, as reported by the European Environment Agency. Dumpsites, resulting from improper waste collection and management, emit greenhouse gases and other pollutants, impacting human health and the environment. Particularly in low- and middle-income countries, open dumping and burning near urban areas pose severe health and climate risks, exacerbating the global challenge posed by the waste sector, which ranks as the world’s third-largest source of human-driven methane emissions.”

Our research has indicated that the global quantity of waste destined for uncontrolled disposal, encompassing open dumping, burning, or natural environment leakage, is expected to reach 730 million metric tonnes by 2030. We urgently need to enforce proper waste and resource management, and to have clearer geolocation data of dumpsites worldwide. Emerging technologies are offering new opportunities to achieve this: for instance, using artificial intelligence, we are developing a global asset-level database of dumpsites, as a tool for governments, policymakers, financial institutions, and the public.”

Jose Espi, a PhD student at the University of Oxford’s Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) said:

"Sustainable plastics have gained momentum amidst concerns over the environmental impact of traditional plastics, yet they mostly remain nascent technologies. Biobased, biodegradable, compostable, recycled, and net-zero emissions plastics show promise, but no single solution can fully address the plastic crisis. The crucial question to curb plastic waste and related COemissions is whether these technologies can be swiftly deployed at scale with competitive pricing. While progress has been made in policy, such as promoting recycling and restricting single-use plastics, there is a notable lack of support for new biomaterials, especially within the EU where legislation and taxation fail to distinguish between conventional fossil-based plastics and bioplastics.”

“A change in the plastic system to comply with environmental targets is viable, but a significant reallocation of capital investment is required. Ambitious policies should prioritize reducing demand for fossil plastics, eliminating unnecessary plastic use, enhancing recycling infrastructure, catalyzing consumer behaviour change, fostering innovation, and securing financing. This presents a wealth of opportunities for research and business, particularly in developing sustainable and cost-effective solutions that will become the materials of the future.”

Jose’s research focuses on applying state-of-the-art techniques to forecast the costs of emerging biopolymer technologies and identifying sensitive points within the petrochemical industry where small interventions can catalyze the transition to zero-impact plastics.

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