Opinion: To plastic, or not to plastic

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Opinion piece by Gary Panknin, sustainability officer at Eugene, Oregon-based PakTech.

One of the top environmental debates currently raging throughout the world is whether or not to ban the use of plastics. Though many a headline or blog may read as such, that is not entirely true, for nearly every facet of society is reliant upon plastics.

This reliance is for good reason as plastics are lighter, more flexible, safer, healthier, and cheaper to produce than any other alternative. To remove or replace plastics wholesale would be unimaginably detrimental to the whole of society, from the economy to the medical field to everyday life.

Rather, the debate on banning plastics largely revolves around single-use plastics, such as plastic spoons, forks, straws, etc. One of the leading arguments for the banning of single-use plastics can be summarised as follows: there is a large amount of plastic littering the ocean, thus we are producing far too much plastic and must halt all use of said plastic.

Using that same logic, one could easily argue that since so many vehicular accidents are caused by the use of smart phones while driving, smart phones should be banned and replaced with some other alternative.

Suppose a fancy new alternative was invented for the smart phone and people used this alternative while driving; would the rate of vehicular accidents drop? Of course not, because the problem lies not with the smart phone itself, but rather with the way in which it is being used.

The same is true of plastics. Go ahead and replace plastic with an alternative material. In a report, Plastics and Sustainability 2016 by The American Chemistry Council in conjunction with Trucost, it is noted that the environmental cost would rise to an estimated $533bn (€470bn) from the current $139bn (€122bn).

The costs of climate change would go from $71bn (€62bn) to $183bn (€161.6bn), of human and ecosystem health from $63bn (€55.6bn) to $343bn (€303bn), of ocean damage from $5bn (€4.4bn) to $7bn (€6.2bn). The alternatives would also produce 2.7 times more greenhouse gases and consume twice as much energy.

Replacing plastic with an alternative will only serve to further worsen the effects of global warming and pollute the oceans with objects that sink or dissolve into harmful chemicals.

The real issue at hand is not plastic itself, but rather the way in which it is being used and discarded. The deteriorating health and well-being of our planet is a serious issue that demands serious responses, not expensive band-aids and petty arguments. Each and every one of use, from top executives to every day consumers, need to take responsibility for the way we use the resources and materials at our disposal.

Plastic itself is an amazingly diverse and effective material that continues to revolutionise, enhance, and better countless areas of our lives, but like anything else, can cause great harm to ourselves and the world around us when used without understanding or responsibility. Sadly, education and responsibility have been sorely lacking in this area and the planet has paid the price for it. Continued lack of responsibility and carelessness can and will prove disastrous. 

Education and responsibility are only one side of the coin, however; the other side is infrastructure. The technology to create a circular economy by means of recycling does in fact exist, but the infrastructure needed to fully implement it is seriously lacking. Of all the plastic waste produced in the world, less than 10% is recovered due in large part to the lack of infrastructure both at home and abroad. It should also be noted that Europe and the US combined are responsible for a mere 2% of the plastic waste found in the oceans (reported by the Sustainable Packing Coalition, Ocean Recovery Alliance, and The Plastics Circle).

A building up of infrastructure would drastically change those numbers, recycling plastic waste into anything from new bottles and utensils to cement aggregate or eye glasses. Anything is possible with the innovations in recycling and waste management technologies of recent years when supported with the necessary infrastructure.

Aside from the obvious benefits of preventing waste, recycling plastics consumes 90% less energy and 100% less petroleum and emits 78% less greenhouse gases than producing new resins. Recycling plastics also creates 6 times more jobs than landfilling recyclables and 36 times more jobs than incinerating, which is most certainly a boon to any economy.

And so the question remains: to plastic, or not to plastic? Given the facts and extensive research behind it, plastic most assuredly needs to stay and the time, energy, and resources currently being spent on costly alternatives and detrimental bans ought to be committed to the building up of infrastructure, furthering of education, and continued innovation within this amazing field. Only then will we be able to create a truly circular, sustainable economy and clean environment.

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