Plastic Free July: Tackling the Plastic Crisis with Sustainable Solutions

This month marks Plastic Free July, an initiative that highlights one of the most significant environmental challenges of our time: single-use plastics. These materials are designed for short-term use and often end up in landfills or in nature. Here they can break down into microplastics that pollute ecosystems and food chains for centuries.  

Research by the Sustainable Communities and Waste (SCaW) Hub highlights that microplastics from astroturf and tyres are affecting environments. Meanwhile, the Hub’s work on the circular economy explores pathways for transforming plastic and other forms of waste into resources and products. The 2021 National Plastics Plan states over one million tonnes of single-use plastics go straight to landfill annually and around 130,000 tonnes leach into Australian waterways and oceans each year. Sending plastic to landfill limits opportunities to recycle and remanufacture this waste resource.  

The Circular Economy – the innovative alignment between recycling and remanufacturing 

To help combat the plastic crisis, innovative solutions and a shift towards a circular economy are essential. The UNSW SMaRT Centre has developed MICROfactorie™ Technologies which reform various waste streams into value-added materials and products. For example, waste plastics can be turned into filament for 3D printing and Green Ceramics made from textiles, glass and other wastes.  

The circular economy goes beyond recycling and requires an alignment with remanufacturing to create quality products with fit-for-purpose performance. Strong product stewardship is also crucial for tackling the plastic problem, where producers and users are more accountable for the end-of-life of their products. This involves better collection and recycling pathways to reform waste resources into products.

Watch: Hub Leader Professor Veena Sahajwalla champions circular economy solutions as part of Planet Ark’s Podcycle product stewardship program. 

Product Stewardship

Behavioural changes created through awareness campaigns are also necessary to reduce plastic pollution. This includes considering the materials in longer lifespan products such as printers so they can be diverted from landfill into remanufacturing. Sustainable solutions are required for the transformation of waste resource into value-added products, creating environmental and economic benefits in the transition to a circular economy. 

The Role of Research in Finding Solutions 

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles less than 5mm in size and are a prevalent form of pollution. They originate from larger plastic debris that degrades over time and have many sources. The Hub's research has shown that microplastics from sources such as synthetic grass and tyres are prevalent pollutants in waterways. 

The Plastic and Other Waste project is working to reduce the impact of plastics. The research focuses on understanding microplastics and finding fit-for-purpose technological recycling solutions for regional and remote communities across Australia. The aim is to build the capacity of other communities while working to reduce the impact of plastics on the environment in several ways:  

  • the finalisation of a national protocol for measuring and monitoring microplastics will provide deeper insights for policy makers to understand the sources of these pollutants  
  • the development of a national framework for identifying and evaluating fit-for-purpose recycling solutions for remote communities
  • a demonstration case study with a remote Indigenous community will provide ground-truthing for these solutions and share lessons learned. 
Scanning electrion microscope (SEM) images of microplastics from Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub
Image: Scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of microplastics (source: Dr. Rumana Hossain, UNSW SMaRT Centre)

Join the Plastic Free July challenge 

The Plastic Free July campaign in 2024 is focusing on “Small steps, big difference” to highlight the impact communities can have with action steps. Each year, millions of campaign participants from over 190 countries make a difference together by choosing to refuse single-use plastic. 

Plastic Free July says 10 billion kgs of household waste has been avoided by participants over the last five years because millions of people choose to make a change. They encourage participants to choose one single-use plastic to avoid or take the pledge to avoid single-use cups, plastic drink bottles or plastic food wrap. The Plastic Free July team recommend: 

  • refilling reusable water bottles  
  • bringing a reusable coffee cup or enjoying a mug at a cafe 
  • switching from plastic wrap to reusable containers or wax wraps. 

Summary 

It is essential to recognise the critical work being done to address the plastic crisis this Plastic Free July. From groundbreaking research to innovative remanufacturing technologies, there is hope for a future with less plastic pollution. These innovative solutions can help move towards a more sustainable and circular economy to improve environmental outcomes for future generations.