New Scientist Live: how can we fix a problem like plastics? | Innovation


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They are the materials we love to hate, and that everyone professes to despise – not least since the BBC series Blue Planet II highlighted the degree to which are polluting our oceans. By some calculations, if things continue as they are there will be more plastics in the sea than fish by 2050.

That's a problem for wildlife directly and potentially for us indirectly, as creatures at the bottom of the food chain ingest broken-down plastics that work their way up to us, with as-yet unknown health consequences. Then there is the recently highlighted problem that plastic waste bobbing across the seas could be carrying deadly foreign microbes from place to place, killing off delicate coral reefs.


What can be done? That's the subject of a major panel debate on the main stage at this year's New Scientist Live, featuring New Scientist editor Emily Wilson, Jo Ruxton from the Plastic Oceans Foundation UK, Richard Thompson from the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, and Lucy Siegle, a writer and TV presenter known for her reporting on plastic pollution for BBC One's The One Show.

Plasticene era

What's for sure is that there are no easy solutions. The problem is that the qualities we love about plastics – versatility, durability and cheapness – come back to bite us when we try to dispose of them after use. Thrown into landfill, most plastics take decades or even centuries to degrade. The likelihood is that we today are laying down a distinct geological layer that future generations will come to wonder at – an era dubbed the “Plasticene”.

So why not just recycle plastics? One difficulty is that there are many different types, often mixed in a single product, that can't easily be separated for . But cost is the main factor – in most cases it's simply not economically viable to recycle plastics because they are cheaper made fresh.

That's the sort of issue that could be solved with government regulation – but how many heart-breaking pictures of hawksbill turtles caught in plastic waste will it take us to act? The panel debate in London on 20 September will take apart these issues – and highlight what we can all do to make a difference.

New Scientist Live is our award-winning festival of ideas and discoveries. It will run from 20 to 23 September at ExCeL London, and feature more than 120 speakers giving thought-provoking talks on everything from our relationship with volcanoes to how drones are helping to conserve wildlife.

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