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Insight | Engineers take on plastic for World Environment Day

Plastic bottles

In years gone by engineers and environmentalists have traditionally been at loggerheads. 

However, in 2018 the roles have reversed and it is the engineers calling on the organisers of World Environment Day to do more to put an end to plastic pollution. 

Today (5 June) volunteers around the world are being encouraged to beat plastic pollution by refusing to settle for single use plastic products: the UN-backed campaign’s tagline is “if you can’t reuse it, refuse it”.

But Mott MacDonald global practice leader for climate resilience David Viner believes that isn’t going far enough. He explains how recycled plastics often break down into environmentally damaging nanoplastics much quicker, and engineers should steer clear of using recycled plastics in their work.

“We’re making new roads out of recycled plastic – OK brilliant, you’re recycling the plastic and it’s not going into a landfill, but what you’re doing is you’re producing it in a form that breaks down more easily to get into the environment,” he explains. “A lot of people say ‘we need to recycle this’ or ‘this is made out of recycled plastic’. Either don’t use the stuff in the first place or put it in landfill.”

Viner believes designers must start to think about using alternative materials to plastics, such as cellulose from crop residue.

“It’s a case of how we design new products, new materials, and we need to start looking at the whole supply chain,” he says. “It’s the human imagination that’s the problem. We can get on and design and build it, as long as people think it can be done.”

Plastic pollution is just one environmental issue engineers can tackle through design. But the evidence shows our sector is one of the least sustainable, using methods and materials which are collectively responsible for around 16% of the UK’s CO2 emissions and making global cities’ dirty air even worse.

With so much at stake, should clients and industry bodies be pushing harder for more sustainable results? Or does the buck stop with designers?

WSP UK director of sustainability David Symons believes the whole industry has a responsibility to push greener engineering.

“I think the answer is inevitably it’s both,” he says, adding that while clients set a direction, engineers ultimately have autonomy in their designs.

“Engineers are professional people; we are of course guided by our clients as well.”

WSP is trying to kickstart a change in attitudes. The firm’s Future Ready programme works both with its own engineers and with clients to design with the future in mind, imbedding resilience to future problems at a level which goes beyond current design codes.

“This is a top-down initiative, but we’re absolutely clear that the impact of this is engaging and influencing [WSP’s] 43,000 very clever engineers to do something different in their designs,” says Symons.

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