The plastic paradox

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A mess of plastic bottles, cups, containers, lids and caps of assorted colours, all spread out across a table and photographed from above

Let’s be honest, it’s rare that the subject of plastics is discussed completely objectively, and that’s okay. After all, it’s an incredibly important and emotive topic, but also one that has many nuances, angles, sub-issues and complexities. We’ve reached a point where ‘plastic’ is a dirty word while ‘plastics’ are still an enormously important material in our world.

But it must be used responsibly. According to the OECD, half of ALL plastic produced is designed to be used once and thrown away! Look around and you’ll quickly see a great number of such items – bottles and caps, grocery bags and styrofoam containers are the obvious ones. But did you know that even cigarette filters contain tiny plastic fibres? And these are, according to the UN Environment Programme, the most common type of plastic waste found in the environment. But as cigarettes are increasingly being replaced by vaping products, there’s a whole new issue to tackle. Some of these examples can be recycled, of course, but, in reality, only around 10% are.

However, there are also plenty of plastics that we rely on – items which certainly have a lifespan way beyond five years. And this is because plastics are very versatile, durable and mouldable, which makes them ideal for such important things as electrical wiring insulation, or parts of cars, trains and buses. Countless lives are saved through the use of MRI machines and CT scanners. In fact, plastic is incredibly important in the world of surgical equipment overall, as it can be antimicrobial, easy to sterilise and versatile enough to be used for things like syringes and catheters.

A huge pile of clear, lime green, white and black plastic bottles, containers, lids and straws. These are neatly stacked and photographed against a white background.

The United Nations Development Programme gives three reasons for the low volumes of plastic recycling: contamination (they’re dirty or have non-recyclables attached, so machines can’t process them), chemicals (some plastics contain harmful substances that are too risky to destabilise) and cost/profit (every different type and colour needs to be sorted, then recycled – which can be expensive).

And this is where the thorny issue of black plastics comes in. Run a quick mental checklist of all the black plastics in your world. Kitchen utensils? Takeaway packaging? Shampoo bottles? Rubbish bags? If your mind added in a big sigh at this point, that’s okay. But bear with us – there is some good news ahead.

Because although they can be recycled, black plastics usually aren’t. Why? Well, as we mentioned, plastics must be sorted by colour and composition because each ‘type’ needs to be treated differently. Except the machines that do the sorting can’t ‘see’ black plastic. This is because they use a technology called infra-red spectroscopy, which identifies the type of plastic by shining an infra-red light on it, then measuring how the light is absorbed or reflected. Each kind gives a different measurement, which tells the machine how to treat it. Black, however, doesn’t absorb or reflect light, so the black plastics aren’t identified and are sent to incineration or landfill. Until now.

Because this is something we take seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we refused to accept that this is just the way things are. It’s important to us that we examine every product we produce with an eye being as material efficient as possible. You might have heard the term ‘closed loop’ and, that means using and re-using plastics to make new things, so nothing is wasted.

For us, this begins with design and considering reuse, repair and recycling opportunities right at the start. We regularly analyse every product and look for new ways to optimise our use of materials, including plastics. In this way, we’ve been able to reuse 37,155 tons of products and parts directly and extract 46,023 tons of plastic from used products for use as raw materials.

Innovation and change are possible when it comes to plastics.”

So, understandably, our R&D team in Japan has long been concerned by the inability to distinguish – and therefore recycle – black plastic. Of course, being concerned is very different to taking action, but we then invested in and developed a technology which brings us closer to widespread black plastic recycling.

Instead of using infra-red, our scientists created a detection method which applies a laser light to the plastic. It creates an optical phenomenon where the interaction between light and object creates a new energy, which is full of information about an object’s material composition. This energy is then analysed at incredible speed by our proprietary recognition software – spotting black plastics too! Clever, yes, but also incredibly powerful and important (plus, if we say so ourselves, really really cool). But, more, it shows that innovation and change are possible when it comes to plastics.

We all know ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’, but it’s lately been updated to add ‘refuse’ (as in, avoid single use plastics altogether) and ‘repair’, which we think is welcome and comprehensive. Certainly, we want our products to last as long as possible and Canon EMEA National Sales Offices repair over 80,000 products each year. We love to see the lives of our devices extended, whether that’s gifted/resold and re-loved, or recycled, remanufactured, refurbished or repaired. This kind of longevity, to us, is a proud achievement – that we can create products of such quality that they keep giving, while also making sure that tomorrows technologies offer the same.

So, it's fair to say that plastics are a paradox. Yes, they are the cause of so many global problems, but they also solve a great many too. We believe they absolutely must be treated with respect and a global focus put on product packaging, circular design, the recyclability of plastic materials and end of life processes such as remanufacturing, refurbishment, recycling and waste management. The goal is to rid the world of that which is entirely unnecessary, while carefully managing the impact of the plastic we need.

Learn more about Canon’s approach to circularity and sustainability.

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