Getting distracted with plastic

5 minute read

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“Single-use” was the Collins word of the year for 2018, reflecting widespread public concern about the volume of plastic being thrown away, and invariably ending up in the oceans. The response has been impressive with people making real change in their day-to-day lives and consumer pressure starting to force changes in supermarkets. Co-op recently announced they would introduce compostable carrier bags that can be re-used for food waste. However, as with all sustainability issues, it’s never as simple as “x is bad, so let’s replace x with y”. Indeed, in this case, I (and a growing number of others) fear we are stuck in a dogmatic rejection of plastic, and as a result losing sight of the key issues. It’s notable that the only environmental announcement in the last UK budget related to single-use plastics.

In defence of plastic

Crucially, plastic is not in itself unsustainable. At least the alternatives are not necessarily any better. Furthermore, new, plastic containing composites will no-doubt play an important role in the eco-innovations which could help build a more sustainable society. Thus, I contend that the current “war on plastic” is somewhat misguided. This is in the same way that branding fat as unhealthy was not completely wrong, but missed the point that sugar was a far bigger problem and that fats perform an important part of a healthy diet. Much like fats, we currently use far too much plastic, but it’s not inherently bad and may have an important role to play in more sustainable futures.

Paper bags? Cotton Bags?

There has been wide-ranging efforts to reduce plastic use, not least the 5p plastic bag charge. This has encouraged the use of more durable bags for life but it has been suggested that this could actually have increased overall plastic usage as we are failing to reuse those thicker ‘bags for life’. Other shops might use paper or cotton alternatives, but depending on the number of re-uses, these are not necessarily better. According to an environment agency study, to have the same global warming impact as a single-use plastic bag:

  • A paper bag must be re-used three times.
  • A more durable LDPE bag must be re-used 4 times.
  • A cotton bag must be re-used a whopping 131 times.

Obviously, this ignores the key plastic waste issues, but it also shows how these initiatives involving so-called sustainable choices are often made without attention to the evidence.

An infuriating example of this was at the end of Oxford Half Marathon. We were handed an aluminium CanOWater, labelled on the side with claims of greater sustainability as it uses aluminium rather than plastic. Aluminium may be a more sustainable alternative to plastic for packaging IF it is recycled and it does have very high rates of actual recycling, rather than ‘downcycling’ as is the case with plastic. However, I proceeded to walk past bin after bin overflowing with these metal cans, set for landfill. Metal extraction and processing is a highly energy-intensive process. Collection, recycling, and redistribution are also energy demanding. Debating the relative merits of metal and plastic for packaging water is completely missing the point though. The problem is not which packaging we are using to package and distribute water, but that we are packaging water in the first place.

What about all these “sustainable alternatives”?

We’ve seen a lot of development in bio-based plastics in recent years. In my view, bio-plastics offer long-term alternatives for the production of high-end plastics, but they must not be used as a licence to legitimise wasteful consumerism. As Mombiot puts it: “The problem is not just plastic: it is mass disposability”. Compostable cups, plates, and cutlery are one of the worst examples of this in my mind for legitimising our disposable lifestyles. Indeed, composting packaging is a wasteful way to deal with our waste, as it neither re-uses the material or energy embedded in the producing the packaging, encouraging a linear, rather than circular approach to packaging. Remember the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) – if you put biodegrade in there it would come at the end. This is, of course, assuming that these plastics make it to the industrial facilities required for their degradation in the first place. In landfill, plastics like PLA will still take 100s or even 1000s of years to decompose.

What can we do?

This is not a plea to stop being bothered about sustainability. The growing interest in making sustainable choices is inspiring and promising. All of these cases that I’ve described involve people trying to do good but demonstrate the problem with trying to find easy fixes to single issues without considering the bigger picture and the pitfalls in not considering how people use and dispose of materials in reality. In all these cases the evidence was out there.

We need a bit more healthy scepticism. Furthermore, we need to stop getting distracted with single issues. The sustainability challenge we face is highly complex requiring a suitably complex, multifaceted and system-wide response. So let’s keep working to live more sustainable lives, and more importantly, vote and lobby to ensure our politicians take the necessary (and hard) high-level decisions. In the words of Albert Einstein:

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.