Why demonising plastics won’t save the environment

The real source of major ecological catastrophes isn’t so much the existence of single-use plastics but rather poor waste management systems in developing nations. 

NS

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What do you do to burnish your eco-credentials if you are a prime minister with a reputation for environmentalism, but who has recently authorised the expansion of a domestic pipeline carrying some of the dirtiest oil in the world? What sort of policy could make people forget that further oil sands development all but guarantees that your country will exceed its Paris Agreement climate commitments?

If you’re Canada’s Justin Trudeau, you could distract attention from such awkward contradictions by announcing, as he did in June, a ban on single-use plastics and pushing the rest of the G7 to sign up to a voluntary anti-plastics charter. Theresa May was similarly seduced by the distractive capabilities of what she called “one of the greatest environmental scourges of our times”, proposing a ban on straws, drink-stirrers and cotton buds. She also warned supermarkets to introduce aisles free of plastic packaging.

Prompted by the emotional outpouring over a widely shared video that showed a turtle with a straw up its nose, multinationals have got in on the plastic ban game too. Starbucks has developed a coffee cup lid that it estimates will save a billion straws a year, and the supermarket chain Iceland has pledged to go plastic-free by 2023.

But such policies will do little to solve climate change. Worse still, the demonisation of plastics – both single-use and long-lasting – threatens further harm on the environment.

Defending plastic may seem like edgy contrarianism. But the invention in 1937 of bendable plastic straws represented a simple yet profound tool of human kindness. Their American inventor, Joseph Friedman, had intended them to be used by children, such as his young daughter, whom he had watched struggling to drink a milkshake, but nurses soon realised their benefits for bed-ridden patients who were unable to sit up.

Most paper, bamboo and metal alternatives do not bend, and reusable straws are less hygienic than disposable ones. Bendable straws have long been held up as an exemplar of “universal design”. They are products that are flexible enough to be used by people with a variety of disabilities, from those who have difficulty holding objects to those with problems controlling their bite, to enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail at a bar just like their more able-bodied friends.

Not all universal design items involve plastic, but a great many of them, from Velcro to electric toothbrushes, do. The physical composition of plastics – they are lightweight, durable, hygienic, resistant to corrosion and thermally, electrically and acoustically insulative – lends them an inherent social plasticity.

This is why societies, dating back to the Mesoamerican processing of natural rubber in 1600 BC, have constantly searched for superior malleable materials. The proliferation of synthetic polymers after the First World War was as representative of the medical and technological innovations of that generation as antibiotics, the washing machine, the television and mass aviation.

Plastics also markedly diminish the environmental impact of countless everyday products. They make vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient, while plastic pipes need fewer joints compared with copper or lead ones, reducing water leakages – a major consideration given that a quarter of the world’s population is facing a water shortage crisis. Some plastic packaging is overdone, of course. But most food packaging reduces food waste, which is one of the largest agricultural sources of emissions – a cucumber needs a difficult-to-remove polyethylene “condom” because it makes it last three times as long; Theresa May’s plastic-free supermarket aisles would have been a food-spoilage disaster for the climate.

In striving to lessen one ecological dilemma, societies need to ensure that they don’t cause or exacerbate others. Eliminating all single-use plastic would include catheters and disposable contact lenses – imagine the public health disaster that would result from the eradication of the plastic syringe, one of the greatest health innovations because of its reduction of cross-infection.

The real source of major ecological catastrophes, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example – a mass of marine debris in the Pacific Ocean – isn’t so much the existence of single-use plastics but rather poor waste management systems in developing nations such as China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and various African states.

Mismanaged waste in these countries is typically disposed of in open, uncontrolled landfills, where plastic can enter the marine environment through rivers, waste water flows or, simply, the wind. The wealthiest countries may have the highest rates of plastic use, but for the most part they have negligible rates of mismanaged waste and contribute minimally to marine plastic pollution.

Some 86 per cent of global river input of plastic to the ocean comes from Asia and 0.28 per cent from Europe. Economic development hasn’t necessarily been accompanied by a “throwaway culture”, as many activists contend; rather it is insufficient economic development that is the real problem behind plastic pollution.

The vogue for plastic-phobia exists because it’s a type of activism that involves organising at the point of purchase rather than at the point of production. Instead of the conspicuous consumption of tote bags, an alternative solution would be to press governments in the global North to enhance flows of development aid specifically to eliminate waste mismanagement.

Solutions such as improved waste management might work while still allowing us to enjoy the benefits of plastic. Then again, this would deprive us of the feel-good sensation of “ethical consumption”, and from judging others for their use of earth-corrupting products, while tote bags swing proudly from our shoulders.

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos