Guest of honour at the next Waste Forum in Nantes, Nathalie Gontardis a leading expert on the issue of plastic packaging, exploring promising avenues for innovative and truly biodegradable materials. She deciphers the limits of the actions currently implemented to reduce pollution caused by plastics.
How do you view the prospects for reducing plastic pollution?
Nathalie Gontard*: I try to have a clear, complete vision of the life cycle of plastic materials, which includes the constant and disastrous accumulation of plastic waste in soil and water... and questions the promised effectiveness of the measures taken so far. Plastic materials have brought many benefits, in particular in the food industry where it has increased the number of products available to a greater number of people.The real problem is that we were so happy with the advantages offered by these materials that we questioned neither their long term impact on the environment, nor that their development brought their cost down to practically nothing.It is difficult to bring this momentum to a stop now… and actually we are not stopping it. Despite the good intentions and the action plans announced, the increase in production has not even begun to stabilize! It’s a constant race forwards: we’re producing and consuming more and more plastic.
« Plastic materials have brought so many benefits, especially in the food industry, that we have not questioned their impact on our environment. »
Don’t the recycling efforts we havebegun herald a brighter future?
Nathalie Gontard: We must face up to the problem of plastic waste. Even though I’ve always fought for the development of recycling, it does have its limits: it will under no circumstances be able to eliminate the release of plastic waste into the environment. True plastic recycling, meaning the infinite reuse of the material, is not yet possible. Any plastic that becomes waste ends in one of two ways: either it contributes to global warming (through incineration or transformation into biofuel...), or it turns into fine particles (after breaking down in soil or water) with dire consequences. We were too slow in realising the scale of the problem, and although there is now a salutary structural movement, the solution will not only be “to sell recycling”and to set down deadlines, such as 100 % recycling by 2025, which noone can really believe in! The major consequence of the sole promotion of recycling is that it doesn’t question the use of plastics…whereas that is the priority today!
« Because true plastic recycling, meaning the infinite reuse of the material, is not yet possible, the sole promotion of recycling is not a credible solution. »
Beyond any technological solution, beyond recycling, your first and foremost advocate reduced production?
Nathalie Gontard: Of course, as there is not one simple or magic solution, but a whole range of solutions with their respective advantages and disadvantages, all of which are constantly evolving. Some are mature and others are not, exploring different angles in line with the multiple families of plastics to be dealt with, according to their uses and geographical zones…Regarding myself, for example, I work on the development of food packaging materials made fromsourced agro-waste that will be biodegradable under natural and recyclable conditions. Some talk of “organic plastics”, but the only organic thing about them is the raw material; others talk of biodegradability that only exists in industrial composting … Before praising the powers of these new technologies, it is urgent to raise awareness among user-consumers about the plastics problem, and to give plastic materials, which unfortunately cost nothing, their true value, meaning a price! Without demonizing it, but to give a clear view of its functions, the reasons why we use it, but also the problems that it creates. We have not done that in the past, and we are stillnot doing it enough, maybe because we’re afraid of impacting consumption and affecting companies and their business… I note that only consumer-citizenstake initiatives that challenge packaging: political and economic stakeholders must follow in their footsteps and prepare our society to make the inevitable shift towards consumption free of the plastic that is harmful for our environment and our health!
« Some talk of “organic plastics”, but the only organic thing about them is the raw material, others talk of biodegradability that only exists in industrial composting … It is urgent to reduce the production and consumption of plastics. »
* Nathalie Gontardis a research director in food, packaging and bio-economy sciences at INRA, head of a laboratory on alternative materials to plastics for food packaging, coordinator of European research projects on plastic and agri-food waste, expert to the European Commission on plastics recycling, food safety and plastic substitution.