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Marine Plastic Pollution

Inclusion of Leakage into Life Cycle Management of Products involving Plastic as a Material Choice

T.Y. Chitaka* and H von Blottnitz
Chemical Engineering Department, University of Cape Town 
* Corresponding Author: chttak002@myuct.ac.za

The waste associated with packaging has been an environmental concern for many decades, with plastic of major concern due to accumulation in the natural environment if not disposed properly after use. In particular, the increasing accumulation of plastic in the marine environment has been gaining in importance globally. However, the environmental impacts associated with leakage are not taken into consideration under current life cycle based approaches, despite packaging being a major application area of life cycle assessment. This presents a critical limitation during the life cycle management of products destined for regions where they are likely to be dumped or littered.

It is of interest to determine whether a realistic understanding of leakage rates, differentiated by major use, could possibly help industries to strongly reduce the problem of accumulation of plastics in the environment without foregoing the quantifiable environmental advantages of plastic as a material choice in the bulk of its applications. Previous studies suggest that plastic materials associated with foods consumed on the go, including bottles, caps/lids, polystyrene food containers, snack wrappers and straws, are more likely to be leaked into the ecosphere than other plastics. This prevalence was also observed in beach accumulation surveys conducted across the Cape metropole in 2017, in areas with varying catchment characteristics, indicating a high leakage propensity for such items.

This on-going research aims to investigate the use of product specific leakage rates as a proxy indicator during the life cycle management of products in which plastic is a material choice. This includes an attempt to quantify leakage rates for selected plastic items reported to be highly prone to leakage, based on the beach surveys conducted in 2017. The feasibility and influence of providing specific knowledge on leakage rates on product life cycle management will be investigated through the development of five LCM case studies for items which have been identified as problematic. The cases will be developed in partnership with relevant industry stakeholders. It is envisaged that this will take the form of knowledge co-production, as industry input is integral to the development of relevant and robust life cycle models. The implications of the resultant cases, in the context of LCM, will be investigated jointly with relevant stakeholders including brand owners and packaging designers. The investigations will also explore the relative influence of different design metrics on product design, as well as any challenges associated with plastic product redesign and material substitution.