Plastic does not always mean evil, researchers say in response to the coronavirus pandemic
Environment is said to be another victim of the novel coronavirus. Many countries were determined to fight plastics last year, but during the pandemic, people more often reached for plastic packaging or personal protective equipment. Based on their research, researchers from an international team led by the experts from Brno University of Technology point out that plastics do not have to be automatically bad; it mainly depends on how they are handled. In order to map the environmental impact, the team has introduced a new concept called Plastic Waste Footprint (PWF), which should help determine the environmental footprint. The concept was presented in the article published in the renowned journal Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews.
The current coronavirus pandemic has been associated with huge increase in the use of plastic protective equipment and packaging. This has put an unprecedented impact on the environment and waste management systems worldwide. Based on the statistics from China, which has the biggest amount of relevant data on this issue so far, the amount of municipal waste in Hubei Province was reduced by 30% after the coronavirus outbreak, whereas the generation of medical waste increased by 370%, with a high proportion of plastics.
One of the first professional articles focused on the environmental challenges connected with the current pandemic, was the study of the international research team led by the experts from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Brno University of Technology. In just twenty days, they managed to prepare an expert article for renowned journal Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews, with the impact factor 12.11, which is higher than, for example, the well-known journal NATURE Sustainability. The article was subsequently reviewed by 11 reviewers and was published in the June special edition.
According to the authors, the biggest negative impact on the environment is not caused by the material itself, but by the consumers’ behaviour. “Plastics are not a problem; waste is. If you have a paper bag and use it just once, it means a much greater environmental impact than a plastic bag used repeatedly. Plastics have many properties that are advantageous especially during the pandemic. Instead of rejecting them, we should learn to deal with them and choose the most environmentally acceptable alternative,“ explains Jiří Klemeš from the Sustainable Process Integration Laboratory (SPIL), Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Brno University of Technology.
What is 10Rs principle?
REDUCE – reduce the amount of waste or waste material you use
REUSE – use items repeatedly if possible, prefer reusable alternatives (e.g. reusable fabric bag instead of a paper or plastic one)
REFUSE – reject items we do not need (do not take items unnecessarily even if they are for free, eliminate e.g. unnecessary print)
REFILL – refill e.g. plastic packaging, bottles, cans,…
REPAIR – if possible, repair rather than dispose
REPURPOSE – before disposing of an item, consider the ways in which it could be repurposed or repaired
REGIFT – try to gift items you do not need before disposing them
RETHINK – rethink how you view waste and environment
RECOVER – disposed material can be used for energy recovery (e.g. heat produced in an incinerator plant)
Researches proposed a new concept called Plastic Waste Footprint (PWF) to facilitate plastic waste accounting. It considers not only the negative impacts of the produced plastics; it also reflects the value of recycled and reused material, or materials that were not needed thanks to the plastic product.
The researchers suggest the “10Rs principle“, i.e. a guideline that could be helpful for the reduction of plastic waste i.e. the guidelines aimed at reducing waste. “The biggest priority should be our attempt to produce no waste. Using a cup and disposing it after a single use is wrong. When used repeatedly, the environmental impact is significantly reduced, and it does not matter if the cup is made of plastic or paper. And if an item cannot be reused, we should at least turn it into energy,“ says Klemeš.
The researchers say that reduction of the environmental impact of plastic waste is a huge challenge for the technology which will require cooperation of consumers, suppliers, public administration and waste treatment operators. Nevertheless, the researchers believe that the current coronavirus pandemic could act as a catalyst for long-term changes in plastic waste management practices. Plastic Waste Treatment is proposed to facilitate the decision making for plastic replacement.
”We should learn the lesson from the impacts of the current pandemic and create a new and better society. We should not brand the plastics as evil at any cost; we should focus on consumer behaviour and waste management system. We believe that our PWF concept can help people and public bodies to make more responsible decisions in respect to sustainable development,“ adds Klemeš.
The study was carried out by Prof. Jiří Klemeš and Dr. Yee Van Fan from the SPIL laboratory, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Brno University of Technology, under the collaboration with Prof. Raymond R. Tan from the De La Salle University, Philipines, and Dr. Peng Jiang from A*STAR, Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore. AtAltmetric, the study is among the top 5 % articles in the world. The article ”Klemeš, J.J., Fan, X.Y., Tan R.R., Jiang P., 2020, Minimising the present and future plastic waste, energy and environmental footprints related to COVID-19, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 127 109883“ (in English) was published in “Open Access“ mode and can be accessedhere.
SPIL – Sustainable Process Integration Laboratoryis an international research team supervised by Professor Jiří Klemeš from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Brno University of Technology. The project No. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/15 003/0000456 has been subsidized from the Operational Programme Research, Development and Education, and was commenced in February 2017. The objective of the research team is to provide both unique and practical knowledge which will promote an increase in efficiency of processes and power industries, and will help minimize the so-called greenhouse, nitrogen, ecological and water footprints.