What Plastic Problem?

Like it or not plastics are a vital part of modern day life – more recently the current global Covid-19 pandemic has subtly highlighted to all of us the vital role plastics play in protecting public health. Plastic is saving lives by offering a sterile, easily sanitised, cost effective material with which to manufacture lifesaving equipment and protective PPE. They are durable, lightweight, strong and are highly versatile, so why is it that plastics have been given such a bad name?

There is an unprecedented amount of bad press and publicity around plastics, reports that state if we do not tackle the plastic ‘problem’ there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050. Is this entirely fair to plastics? We argue that the plastic problem is more of a societal challenge – the material is not the issue; it is how it is being handled that is causing the problem.

Littering and waste management

Trash on sand beach showing environmental pollution problem

The media is quick to focus on the levels of plastic pollution in our waterways and oceans, often using it in their reports as the highly visible impact of human activity on the planet when discussing the broader subject of the climate change crisis. Whilst this is a terrible blight on our natural environment it is not accurate to negatively associate plastics with climate change. The bigger issue here is the means by which the plastic found its way into the ocean, not the existence or use of plastics in the first place. In fact it is crucial to consider the job the plastic has performed in saving resources and reducing Green House Gas (GHG) emissions prior to escaping into the natural environment.

Plastics (and other materials that aren’t talked about quite as much, such as metal and paper) in our oceans is a man-made issue, and is the result of poor waste management and littering. It is the mismanagement of waste or at times the lack of any kind of regulated waste management systems that is filling oceans, fields and paths with our waste. The general public is rightly frustrated at the sight of this highly visible symptom of our consumer lifestyle. As we are increasingly distanced from the complex global supply chains that facilitate cheap food and goods, somewhere along the way we have been distracted by focussing on the type of litter rather than the cause of it in the first place.

Therefore, we stress the importance of anti-littering and correct, uncontaminated and segregated waste disposal. This step when taken seriously will help lower and even prevent the litter levels, thus stopping the waste being spread across our planet. It will also help to improve the value of the post-consumer material, turning it from ‘waste’ into a resource that will actively contribute to a greener more efficient economy.

Single Use – is a choice

Many items get branded as “single-use plastics”, drink bottles and plastic bags are perhaps the main offenders. After one use we either recycle them, or in some cases place them into our general waste receptacles. However the term “single-use” when it comes to such items is misleading. Many items including the trusty 5p carrier bag can and should be used several times. Plastic is a very robust material, it is designed to last, which is a brilliant reason to keep re-using your plastics. It will save a little money but importantly you’ll be cutting down on the waste of perfectly good and re-usable plastics.

Food Waste Has Bigger Environmental Impact

Did you know, if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest producer of GHG emissions after the US and China? An estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally each year, with one third of all food produced for human consumption being thrown away, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This food gets disposed of at the first signs of any rot or decay, leaving it seemingly inedible and consequently wasted. When sent to landfill the food gives off methane as it decomposes, this potent greenhouse gas has a far greater Global Warming Potential than CO2.

It is also important to consider all the resources required to bring food from the farm to your table: water for irrigation, land for cultivation, fuel for powering harvest and transport vehicles, not to mention the petrochemicals and finite resources used to fertilise the soil and protect the crops – large proportions of which are ultimately wasted each time we throw that unappetising brown apple in the bin.

There is much concern in the public about the amount of packaging used in our shops, this might be well deserved when we look at certain luxury products with ornate, oversized packaging, however when it comes to food it is essential in reducing wastage across the supply chain. Light weight plastic packaging can increase the shelf life and quality of food products for up to 24 days. Here are some stats:

  • 27% more apples are wasted when sold loose vs. in plastic packaging.
  • Cucumbers extend their life when wrapped in plastic film by 14 days.
  • Advanced plastic packaging extends the life of a steak by up to 10 days

The comparatively small amount of plastic used to protect and extend the life span of food will have a far lesser impact on the environment than if the food was left unprotected and consequently wasted. By improving food ‘survival rates’ from farm to fork we ensure less pressure is put on our natural environment by not having to overcompensate for the inevitable wastage by putting more of our natural environment under the plough.

The Alternatives are NOT always better

As a result of the negative press about plastics, many people are keen to switch to alternatives as they believe they are the more sustainable option, however this is often not the case. It may be a surprise to find that your 5p carrier bag is more resource efficient than the paper and cotton alternatives. Both paper and cotton take far more energy and amenities to produce. More land, power and water is needed to create these ‘environmentally friendly’ alternatives, putting far more pressure on our planet’s finite resources.

These items are also considerably heavier than the lightweight PE bags. A paper grocery bag weighs 5x more and cotton over 200x more than their plastic counterpart – this puts more pressure on transport, with a greater number of vehicles required to ship the same quantity of goods, inevitably contributing even more GHG emissions which will only accelerate the climate change crisis.

All of this means that in order to match the environmental impact of your 5p plastic carrier you have to re-use your paper bag AT LEAST 4 times and your cotton tote bag 173 times. This is based on the assumption that you only use the plastic carrier one time, yet as we have already explained this bag can and should be used several times. With each re-use of the plastic bag we increase the number of times the alternatives must be reused to match the resource efficiency of plastics exponentially.

It also has to be said that it is naïve to assume that by switching from one material to another, the inherent littering and waste management pitfalls will also simultaneously be eradicated. The same number of instances of littering will occur but the material being wasted will have a far greater impact on accelerating climate change albeit perhaps a less visible one.

Despite how the media portrays it, plastic is actually a very resourceful and useful material. It helps to reduce GHG emissions and land use, improve our diets by facilitating more variety from further afield and protect public health. It is time to stop bashing plastics and start valuing this marvellous material as a resource to be re-used and recycled responsibly.