Since the mass production of plastics commenced in earnest post-WWII, Geyer et al estimate that 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic has been produced globally. The shocking figure is that only 9% of this has ever been recycled. 12% has been incinerated, meaning 79% of all plastic ever created still exists in one form or another in landfill and the environment. Even the plastics that have ‘degraded’ undergo a different process to organic matter, in that the UV-powered degradation simply reduces the plastic into smaller and smaller fragments and harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA).
So, plastics are terrible and we need to stop using them, right? Well, yes, to an extent, but the real story is not quite as simple.
Plastic is a bit of a wonder material. It’s light, strong, impermeable, malleable, mouldable to pretty much any shape, and above all, cheap. It allows the safe transport of perishable goods over long distances, without risk of water or air ingress.
It is an indisputable fact of physics that the higher the mass of an item, the more energy it takes to move it. Current modes of transport still generally rely on the burning of fuels to move items around the world, producing vast amounts of CO2 in the process. Studies by WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) into the wine industry suggest that the majority, if not all, of CO2 saved in glass bottle manufacture compared to PET (plastic) is lost due to the extra CO2 produced in the transport of a heavier material. We cannot simply replace one environmental problem with another.
So, what can we do as consumers? Should we stop buying microwaves and kettles with plastic housing? How about remote controls for televisions? Clearly not. These items are so seldom thrown away, the impact on the amount of plastic entering the ecosphere would be negligible. The immediate focus needs to be on reducing the 8 million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans every year, without exacerbating other environmental or social issues, simultaneously keeping extra costs to a minimum.
This requires some education. We see a number of cotton-based bags advertised as ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives to single-use plastic bags, which on the face of it, seems a great idea. Cotton is a natural material, and so has to be a good replacement for plastic bags, right? Not entirely. The Environment Agency estimates that you’d need to reuse a cotton bag 131 times in order to derive an environmental benefit compared to a plastic bag. This is because of the high energy required in the production of cotton thread, not to mention the pesticides, chemical fertilisers and simple water consumption!
What about paper bags? The issue with these is longevity. Realistically, how many uses are you going to get out of a paper bag once it’s been screwed up into a ball a couple of times, or gets wet carrying your shopping to your car in the rain? On balance, it seems a strong, reusable PLASTIC bag may be the best solution after all. Many of the supermarkets will replace a bag for life for free if it breaks. As long as they are actually recycling the old one, then this has to be the way forward for this particular product.
Perhaps legislation forcing certain products to bear key metrics around their environmental impact (CO2 footprint, weight of plastic, estimated water consumption etc), similar to the nutritional ‘traffic light’ system we have in the UK, would enable consumers to make more educated sources, while driving businesses to reduce these numbers.