Are all plastics an enemy of the environment?
Friday 31st July 2020
Plastics are abundant in our everyday lives. But decades after they were first vaunted as a super material, we have struck a moment in time where our relationship with plastic is evolving and a worldwide revolt is underway.
Images of turtles skewered by straws, plastics tides washed up on our beaches and reports of microplastics on our plates have shocked the nation into a frenzy. We’ve gone mad for reusable tote bags and bottles, ditching their single-use alternatives.
Millions worldwide watched the final episode of Blue Planet 2. We all sat through scenes of horror as an albatross was found dead from shards of plastic lodged in her gut and a sperm whale attempted to eat a plastic bucket. Heralded as a turning point, this one episode of TV sparked a war on plastics with some 88% of viewers changing their behaviour as a result. The ‘Blue Planet 2 effect’ is now used to describe this huge shift in public opinion.
Today, as consumers, we love to hate plastics.
But are all plastics an enemy of the environment?
Where did it all begin?
Plastic was invented during the Industrial Revolution some 100 years’ ago – dubbed as a miracle alternative to expensive natural materials which were depleting. Since its inception, the fantastically flexible substance has revolutionised the way we live. It brought about convenience and we celebrated throwaway living, as depicted in Life Magazine in 1955.
Life Magazine 1955 - Throwaway Living
Plastic is light, durable and cheap and we now rely on it in our everyday lives. Found in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and in the buildings where we reside - it’s hard to avoid.
But 50 years or so after this material first made an appearance, our perceptions of it started to change. In the 60’s, plastic debris in the ocean was first observed and ‘plastic’ progressively became a word to describe something that was cheap or fake. And now, our newspapers and TV screens are full of reports of plastic pollution in our environment, and rightly so.
Every year, the world now produces more than 300 million tonnes of plastic, 50% of which is for single-use with an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste entering our oceans.
In the UK, we recycle just 31% of plastic waste. But where does the rest of it end up?
When plastics aren’t recycled, they end up as litter in our oceans or the environment or dumped in landfill. Plastic pollution can cause harm to humans and wildlife. In our environment they cause death by ingestion or entanglement and can pollute the land through degradation.
What makes plastics problematic?
- Many plastics are single-use – designed to be thrown out and not for reuse
- They’re cheap – so it is hard to convince manufacturers to switch to alternatives
- They take hundreds of years to degrade and so stay in our environment and potentially harm wildlife
- Microplastics (plastic debris less than 5 mm in size) are easily ingested and enter the food chain
- Not all plastics are easily recycled – often because they are poor quality, or because recycling them isn’t economically viable
The way industry and governments have managed plastics alongside societal adoption of them as a disposable and single-use commodity have both contributed to this innovative material ending up an adversary of our ecosystems.
On the flip side… Plastics have gained a rep, but they’re not all bad.
Plastics have several useful applications, and can, in some situations provide a more sustainable option than alternative materials:
- Plastic wrap can significantly increase the life of fresh produce, providing a hygienic barrier against air and water
- Plastics increase the efficiency and hygiene of medicine – plastic syringes are disposable to reduce disease transmission, for example In construction, plastic provides insulating materials for energy-efficiency buildings
- Plastics can weigh less than other alternatives, reducing the associated transport emissions
- Plastic bag alternatives made from cotton requires huge amounts of water to produce – they need to be used 327 times to override the carbon emissions associated with one plastic bag.
One study even showed that if all plastic packaging was substituted with alternative materials, even more energy would be consumed and more greenhouse gas emitted!
Clear on Plastics In March 2020, WRAP launched 'Clear on Plastics' a campaign which gives clear information to consumers about plastics so they can make informed and sustainable choices. Their key message: there is a time and a place for plastics – but we must do more to keep them out of our environment.
So, what’s the answer?
In short, no – not all plastics are an enemy of the environment. Plastics are a valuable resource that we need to keep in use, but out of our environment.
It’s the way we use and dispose of plastics that’s the problem. We need to change our relationship with plastic, so that we see it as a renewable resource, rather than a throwaway product. Innovation needs to focus on incorporating plastic’s admirable qualities, like durability and eliminating their harmful contents.
The answer is to not stop using plastics completely, but to use them more intelligently and dispose of them properly so they can’t do damage to our precious planet, out in the wild.