Though widely despised, maligned and criticised, plastic is not only here to stay, it's also essential to the future of humanity. That's the unshakeable view of UK sustainable plastics expert Dr John Williams, who will be speaking at next week's Australasian Waste and Recycling Expo (AWRE) in Melbourne.
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"Let's face it - plastic is here to stay," Dr Williams says.

"I do get very tired of the growing uninformed media and NGO stuff about plastics being a bad material and how we should move to ban them and use alternatives.

"It is the most functional material we've ever come up with. We depend upon plastics to such an extent that we would literally struggle to live without them. The fact that we are not very good at disposing of it shouldn't stop us from using it. We need to move towards much more intelligent materials which are not only designed for front-end functionality, but also for back-end circular economy principles of recovery."

As the business development director for British tech company Aquapak Polymers Ltd, Dr Williams is at the forefront of sustainable plastics development. The group is about to launch a plastic that's 100% recyclable, 100% biodegradable, and non-toxic.

"The upside to this polymer is that it has all the credentials and properties of a conventional plastic, but its end-of-life behaviour is somewhat different," Dr Williams explains.

"You can recycle it, recover it, and get it to dissolve. It will also biodegrade if it's in the form of a lightweight film or multi-laminates. It's compostable. It will go through an anaerobic system. We've also done marine tests which prove that it won't do any harm to a marine environment."

Dr Williams says the development of new plastics represents a critical facilitator in the drive towards a much-needed international shift to safer, more environmentally friendly iterations.

"The future of plastic is not only about increasing front-end functionality - we also need to start thinking about what kind of plastics we have to adopt in order to allow better recyclability, recoverability and disposability," he says.

"What can we do to give it a chance of degrading properly or morphing into something else?"

When it comes to the adoption of sustainable plastics, Dr Williams says the plastic packaging sector (rather than areas such as medical, automotive or aerospace) will likely be the early movers. That's not to say it will be a quick process.

"It's always a tough challenge because you're effectively trying to turn the super tanker of conventional plastics," he says.

"But it can happen. Inevitably, it's about introducing this material to as many applications as possible."

Dr Williams also believes the economic and social cost for industries and companies opting not to embrace a sustainable plastics future will be considerable.

"The cost of not doing it has both moral and economic aspects," he says.

"Brands want to make money, but they also want to be seen as leaders in sustainability. If they do nothing, clearly, they're going to get a huge amount of hassle from NGOs and consumers. They might even experience consumer turndown, which would therefore negatively affect share values and investment. So, there's certainly a strong economic drive to adopt new plastic technologies."

The Australasian Waste & Recycling Expo takes place on August 23 and 24 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Industry professionals can register to attend AWRE here.

Inside Waste will be reporting from the event so check out the website for regular updates.