Industry and policymakers are not availing themselves enough of the available scientific knowledge when it comes to smarter ways of dealing with plastics. If they were to involve scientists more, scientific knowledge could make a more substantial contribution towards encouraging safe, sustainable use of plastics. This is the conclusion of a study carried out by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) into the role of scientific knowledge in solving the plastic crisis. Hence RIVM is calling on scientists, businesses and policymakers to be more active when it comes to sharing knowledge and developing smart solutions together. The need for this is pressing, as the plastic problem is getting worse by the day. Plastics are persistent and are increasingly being found in our food and drinking water. Despite scientific evidence of the harm caused by plastics, production of harmful plastics is still on the rise.
RIVM studied the current contribution of scientific knowledge to efforts to make plastics safer and more sustainable. In that regard, the solution will not be limited to reducing plastics. After all, plastics prove to be the safest and most sustainable material (from a scientific point of view) in certain forms of use. The task for plastics is about more than just combating pollution; it is also about making the entire plastics chain safer and more sustainable. To be able to achieve this, a greater level of attention will need to be paid to improving risk assessment methodologies for various types of plastic and to sustainable design strategies, at the micro and macro scale. Hence RIVM is calling for better use of the available scientific knowledge and is making a number of proposals on how this knowledge could be given a more prominent role. This study forms part of RIVM’s own strategic research programme.
Three recommendations to bolster the safety and sustainability of plastics
RIVM examined scientific literature to find solutions to the plastic crisis. Its three most significant recommendations are:
- Involve the costs to society of plastics in decision-making as standard: Henceforth, assessments should not be limited to just the risks of one material or one production process. They should also factor in the societal costs and benefits of plastic materials for humankind and the environment, with consideration being given to people, the environment and costs. This is also referred to as ‘true pricing’.
- Factor the safety and sustainability of materials in to product design as standard: Consideration will need to be given to plastics in various uses for multiple life cycles in order to prevent future problems after recycling.
- Scholarly input and measurability of changes: Scientists should actively contribute to discussion of how societal system changes (safe, sustainable plastics) can be achieved and the changes should be rendered transparent and measurable.