In a weekly column, alternately written by Lucien Engelen, Mary Fiers, Maarten Steinbuch, Carlo van de Weijer, Tessie Hartjes, and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. All six contributors – sometimes accompanied by guest bloggers – are working on solving the problems of our time. Everything to make Tomorrow Good. This Sunday, it‘s Carlo van de Weijer’s turn, about plastics soup. Here are all the previously published columns.

The use of plastic is under fire because sooner or later a big part of that plastic will end up in nature. To a large extent, it ends up in the ocean where it is converted into microplastics and ends up in the food chain with potentially very harmful consequences. So we have now successfully got rid of the plastic bags in shops and the European Union is preparing plans to ban balloon batons, plastic plates, and cups; a good plan if there is a good alternative.

What surprises me is the great focus on the use of plastic in packaging and utensils, in other words, the macro plastics. After all, they will only become a problem if they are not recycled or incinerated. In Europe, it is, fortunately, the growing norm that we do not throw these macroplastics into the wild. Plastics are mainly derived from oil, so, as long as we continue to use petroleum products for energy production, it is only to be welcomed that we first use those molecules to pack something with before we convert them into electricity in incinerators. Or even to pack something several times if you also recycle it. And even more so: Plastic packaging is also an environmental blessing. A plastic sleeve around a cucumber increases the energy consumption of the cucumber’s production process by one percent. So if you have to throw away more than a percent fewer cucumbers because of that piece of plastic, that is something valuable.

So as long as you recycle or neatly dispose of your plastic there is no real problem.

We should be much more concerned about primary microplastics, which are the plastics that are already micro when they enter the seas. For Europe, this is by far the largest part of our contribution to the plastics soup. Particles that are so small that even the best-intentioned filter will not be able to fish them out of the ocean.

The origin of these particles lies in plastic additives in items such as clothing, ship’s paint and cosmetics. But for the most part in road traffic, more precisely the waste of tires, and wear particles from the road and road markings. I have already mentioned here that, in the Netherlands alone, traffic leaves 20 million kilos of tire in the wild, and that is largely in the form of microplastics that are added to rubber to make a tire function properly. Look at us, worried about those grains on artificial grass pitches.

There are no limits for all these wear and tear emissions, mainly because it is very difficult to measure these emissions. So we will probably continue to focus on the exhaust. That always reminds me of the story of the man who loses his keys in the dark but decides to go look for them a hundred meters further away because that’s where a lamppost is.

It is high time that these ‘non-exhaust emissions’ are made measurable and notified. Otherwise, there will soon be more plastic in the piece of fish or meat you buy than in the packaging that contains it. After all, if we make the problem visible, we can start working on solutions via biodegradable tires, for example. It is not for nothing that our students at TU Ecomotive built such a biodegradable car last year. Once again, they saw the solutions for the future sooner than we did.

Click here for backgrounds on the figures given above.