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THE PLASTICS LIFECYCLE | a narrative to help us all understand the problem


Plastic. It’s a problem. We all know this now. Every day, we hear about more bad things that plastic waste is doing to the planet and its inhabitants. But there is, of course, another side to this story. Plastic is not inherently evil. It has brought lots of good things to the world. And it’s not going away.

Because this is currently the biggest talking point in waste, we at NRC felt it was time to put the story of plastic in one place. We are experts in waste, not plastic, so the following chapters are our curation of expert opinion about the lifecycle of this love-hate material that so defines our relationship with the natural world today. We hope it’s of use.


With just twenty countries responsible for over 80% of the plastic debris discarded into the ocean, we need to work internationally to solve the problem. Increasing the extent and improving the quality of waste management, particularly in developing countries, is one of the most important immediate steps towards doing so. (Govt – Waste and Resource Strategy 2018) 

90% of plastic polluting our oceans comes from just 10 rivers.

The ocean provides us with everything we need: food, oxygen, inspiration and jobs. It also regulates the climate. Despite its vital importance, we are currently treating our ocean like an enormous dump. A whole garbage truck’s worth of plastic ends up in the ocean every minute, and we are way overdue doing something about the problem.

Humanity’s relationship with plastic is rather schizophrenic.

It is present in almost every aspect of modern life, from water bottles to aircraft. Without it, our lives would not be the same. However, it is now considered an environmental evil because of the havoc that plastic waste wreaks. We see it on our streets, in our rivers and lakes, on our beaches and even in our deepest oceans. There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean in 30 years, scientists estimate. Let us not be foolish enough to think the plastic will stay there. After it is eaten by fish and marine life, causing great damage, it enters the bodies of anyone who eats them.

Many environmental activists are calling for a ban on plastics. However, the very properties that make plastic so dangerous – its durability and long lifespan – also make it a great asset. A material that will not die or be destroyed for five hundred years is valuable. We can reuse it almost endlessly. The problem is not plastic itself. The problem is using it irresponsibly.

A material that can be constantly recycled is a great help to ecology and the economy, especially when the human population is growing rapidly and our lifestyle demands are increasing exponentially. The solution is not to ban plastic, but to ensure that it is used responsibly and recycled properly.

However, plastic recycling is a complicated issue. There are so many different grades of plastic, each requiring their own recycling process. Some of these plastic types are not even recyclable in a commercially viable manner. The process of collecting and sorting these different categories has many challenges, including technological capacity, and social awareness around disposal.

So, we are producing and using more plastic, our current systems and behaviours are not coping with the volume we use, plastic is finding its way into our oceans, which is polluting our world and our fish stocks, which in turn is polluting us – and will do for years to come.

Where are the answers and where is the good? Let’s find out.

Please turn to Chapter 1