Ukasha Umar talks with Philippe Reutenauer about Coexisting with Plastic


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Philippe Reutenauer

The packaging world is doomed to transform to adapt to the raising awareness in our societies that we need to modify our relationship to plastics to make it first more sustainable but ultimately circular. For the more than 10 years, Philippe Reutenauer has been participating to this transformation, supporting Danone’s and Léa Nature’s commitments to make their packaging more sustainable with subjects such as biobased plastics for packaging, colour correction of recycled PET or improvement of recyclability of fexible packaging.

Ukasha: Hello everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Kidding the Future. Today, we have a very important guest, Mr. Phillipe. He is the creator of a card game about plastic.
The Plastic Fresk is a collaborative and scientific game on the life cycle of plastics. Mr. Phillipe, welcome to Kidding the Future. Mr. Phillipe, we hear a lot about plastic in a negative way. So, could you tell me what is this fuss all about?
Phillipe: Sure. First of all, I’m very honored to be invited to talk to you today. It’s my great pleasure. We hear a lot about plastic, but the first thing I would say… We hear more and more a lot about plastic, often for negative reasons. But the first thing I would say is we should not forget that plastic is doing a lot of wonderful things for us. Let me ask you a tricky question. Can you look around you in the environment where you are and find an object which contains no plastic?
Ukasha: This cap.
Phillipe: Yes. It is made out of what?
Ukasha: Cotton.
Phillipe: Okay. That’s a good example. Is it easy for you to find an object without plastic around you?
Ukasha: Yeah, not easy.
Phillipe: Yeah, not easy. If you look around you, you may well recognize that many of the objects contain plastic. Plastic is everywhere in your life. Plastic made the life of us human beings much easier since, let’s say, about 80 years now. But since a few decades, we are using way too much plastic and plastic is ending way too much in the environment.
And this is what is creating us a lot of issues. But it’s very important to understand that more than the plastic itself, it’s certainly linked to its qualities. But more than the plastic itself is the crazy, let’s put it so, way we use plastic. Meaning throwing away a lot of it right away after having used it. This is certainly creating a lot of issues.
Ukasha: So, what prompted you to start a card game about plastic anyways?
Phillipe: It’s a good question. First of all, I worked in my professional career on plastic. So, I was lucky, I would say. I got to learn a lot of things because my job was to look for very specific details about plastic I’ve been working for a large multinational company working on plastic packaging. But as a chemist, my task was to go speak with the producer of the packaging and the producer of the plastic. So, I started to gather a lot of knowledge. And then later on, I got in touch with the concept of collages. So, those card games that you use in a collective way, in a collective manner to gather information together and find your way out of a topic to collectively better understand the topic. I got to learn the Climate Fresk, which is the most famous, I would say, from it. Which is a game which aims at sensitizing people to the issues of climate change. And so, with two former colleagues of mine, we had the idea that we should do the same on plastic because we were knowledgeable about the topic and we thought that it would be silly to keep that knowledge for us but to share it with as many people as possible. Because, as we said before, indeed we have an issue with the plastic, with too much plastic ending in the environment. If we do not make that clear to people, what’s the issue, what’s the whole story about the plastic, it was, for me, suspectful that our society should find a better solution to such a large and important problem that touches everyone every day, several times a day. If we do not have, in societies, a better understanding of the issues linked to the plastic but as well of the opportunities of the issue. So we thought of creating the Plastic College to mimic this way of teaching to people. I must say, for me, the most important, to free science-based knowledge on plastic to as many people as possible.
Ukasha: That is great. So, you mentioned recycling and other end-of-life aspects of plastic. Should we be excited that we are finally seeing the end of plastic?
Phillipe: It’s a very good question. First of all, I don’t think we will see the end of plastic. Plastic remains a very interesting material. It’s probably interesting that we keep collaborating, I would say, with plastic in the future. But having said that, it doesn’t mean that we should not change the way we use plastic. Yes, we need to change it a lot. There are many ways and many things important to know. In many countries, recycling tends to appear or to be presented as a solution to all our issues with plastic.
Meanwhile, recycling is certainly one of the best end-of-life options or clearly the best end-of-life options that we have for plastic objects. Recycling will not be able to treat every plastic object or give a second life, if you want to say so, to every object in plastic that we have. Some objects are much more prone to be recycled than others. Some very small objects are very difficult. But on top of that, and indeed, thank you for sharing these pictures, I like to compare the difficulty of recycling plastic with this image. What you see on the left side are spaghettis with tomato sauce, and on the right side, spaghettis without tomato sauce. This is an important metaphor for what recycling should be. Meaning you need to redo a virgin material out of something which contains already both a colorant, many additives, and impurities. It’s somehow very difficult to manage that, and it’s not possible for all the plastics that we have. So that’s very important to understand, and it’s very important as well to explain to as many people as possible that not everything can be recycled.
First of all, you need to have a recycling industry active in the place where you are living, which is not the case everywhere, far from it. But even when it’s working well in my country, like in the country where I’m living in France, not everything could be recycled. Not every plastic could be recycled, to be more specific. We want to share these pictures to help people understand that some objects are more difficult. Typically small bags, sachets, those ones are very difficult to recycle because they are difficult to gather, or they are difficult to get material out of it which has value on the market. Having said that, it means that the best thing to do with plastic is to avoid to come to a point where you are coming to an end of life. Meaning that keep in use as long as possible the plastic objects that you have to do that.
Avoid buying, avoid choosing, and avoid designing more than everything else. Avoid designing objects which are meant to be single use, so meant to be used only one time. Prefer in your everyday life to use your objects as many times as they can. And the good thing is that plastic is an excellent material, so the object can last probably much longer than the single time that we use them usually.
Ukasha: Great. How do you see the future human generation and your kids coexisting with plastic?
Phillipe: That’s a good question. There are two aspects of it. The first, and I’m afraid this is a very tough message, and this being myself, I have two kids, is difficult. It’s important to say that all the plastic that we have produced is still present and will probably last for centuries.
Unless technology, I’m totally unaware today, will arise or come, we do not know how we will recover the plastic which is already present in the environment. This plastic will last and stay there, break down in smaller and smaller pieces, but keep spreading across the environments, among others, the one in which us human beings, we are living.
This is very important to know and a very important message and a very important reason why we should, by all means, reduce the amount of plastic we spread in the environment.
Ukasha: That is very scary to know.
Phillipe: It’s indeed very scary if you think of it, but I’m sure that you, young people, will find ways to overcome that, like human beings have almost always done in the past.
It’s just a new challenge for your generation. I’m absolutely sorry that you will have to cope with it, but it’s a reality. It would be silly not to say it. So, again, let me underline this again. It’s important to understand that we should absolutely close the tap of plastic flowing in the environment.
But meanwhile, I’m also convinced that given the other challenges that humanity has to face, plastic remains very interesting materials. They are light. They are cheap. They have many functionalities. We make them ideal materials for many things.
It is for good reasons that plastic is so widespread in your life today. We just forget to think of how to manage cleverly the end of life. And also, I would say, being myself a chemist, we also forget to create the plastic which are designed to be better recycled.
So, I firmly believe, because I want to stay optimistic, I firmly believe that plastic will find its way in the future, both in a negative way, because it’s everywhere in the environment and it will be difficult to remove it. But maybe someone will come up with a very interesting way to recover it.
But next week, I think, because we will need to live in a world where we pay more attention to resources, where we spend less energy, plastic which are light and cheap materials may be very interesting for human beings here. Still, we need to redefine the way we live with them.
First of all, collecting everything, not letting any single plastic leaking in the environment. But as well, for many applications where other materials do not properly do the job, find new sorts of plastic that create more meaningful use by reusing them, by being fit for reusing them.
To come and help us, human beings. Let me give an example. During my studies, I had a chance to do during my PhD, self-healing polymers. This is just an amazing thing to imagine. Imagine a plastic that will be able to heal itself.
So, when you have a scratch or even when it’s broken, you can repair it just by pushing the two parts one to another.
Ukasha: That’s great.
Phillipe: For me, it was just striking to see that this is possible. This is just something totally different from what we have today, first, because no one is asking for it.
If you need to design a plastic for just being thrown away after only one time use, or to be able to repeat thousands of cycles of use, it’s certainly not the same thing that you will do. Coming back to the plastic college, why I want to do that is so that people start to believe that other ways to use plastic are possible.
Other ways to cope with the plastic type that we have in our environment. First, close the tap. Second, find new alternatives, find new ways of living. Sobriety, I didn’t say that, but using less plastic, using it longer.
Ultimately, maybe for where plastic remains a very interesting alternative, then designing better options. But still, we, all citizens, we need to ask for new solutions. Not stay with what we have today, or not believe in, I would say, the solutions that we have today are enough to solve the issues that we have.
Recycling the way we know it today will not be able to cope with all the plastic we are using.
Ukasha: Is there any suggestion or advice that you wish to give to our audience?
Phillipe: For me, it’s very important to see in our real life meaningful strategies to reduce our dependency on single-use plastic.
This means I will ask you a question to you, then, Ukasha. In your everyday life, can you spot every moment that you are using plastic, or that you are throwing it away? Can you identify, among these moments, the moment where, at the end, the object you are throwing away, you could, as well, reuse it?
Ukasha: You could reuse the bags of the plastic.
Phillipe: For instance, indeed, reusing bags, reusing bottles.
Ukasha: Yeah. And the people who burn plastic, they shouldn’t burn that, also.They are just burning it for the wire and copper in it.
Phillipe: Yeah, then, if you recover the metal, that’s another story, indeed. But you see, this is a very good comment, that the design of the object we are using needs also to be, I would say, revised to better allow for recovery of the valuable materials that we have, that we consider today as trash,
but that we should really see not only as a resource, but as still viable objects. I would say, again, if you have packaging, you talk about bags, but, as well, bottles are very useful objects, and when they are empty, they are still very valuable objects.
But there are many, many different ways. There’s one thing. I need to change two tires of my car soon. You may know that when you use a tire, you will wear the outside of the tire, and this will lead to losing about two kilograms of plastic particles in the environment, which is a lot.
But the rest of the tire is still a viable object. So, as I need to change my tire, I think I need to take, for the first time, tires which are reshaped, where you re-add, again, these layers on the surface to do that.
This is one of the things where I want to progress myself, where I’m stuck currently, and I want to progress. It really takes all of us to find, in their everyday life, what solution, what is available to them to just rethink our behavior, rethink our relationship toward plastic, to find a more, let’s say, civilized way, I would say, to live with them,
not throwing them away just because we emptied the bottle, for instance.
Ukasha: Thank you very much for your precious time. I’ve learned a lot from you, and I hope people will join your card game to learn more about plastic.
Have a great day. Thank you.
Phillipe: Thank you. The same to you, and have a great future.
Ukasha: Thank you.