Environment

Special report: Our plastic planet

Image of many assorted, small plastic objects like doll heads, planes, eating utensils, arranged into a montage.
Assembled plastic objects found on the UK coast, 1994-2019. Photo: Steve McPherson

We have sipped, packaged and played our way into a global plastics crisis.

Why it matters: Activist consumer groups are pushing for less use, and to some extent, less production, while industry aims for increased recycling.

Solving the plastic problem

An employee walks through plastic wastes waiting to be recycled at a sorting center in France
A sorting center in France. Photo: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

Plastics are intertwined with our lives today — driving researchers to create plant-based versions and more efficient ways to recycle.

The big picture: From a science perspective, the biggest challenge is consumers and companies want materials that won’t degrade quickly while being used but will degrade quickly once disposed, says Andrew Dove, a professor of chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. “The world wants it both ways.”