Bashing the plastics won’t solve environmental issues

It seems to have become the norm to deride plastics and condemn them as bad for the environment. It perhaps started with Blue Planet 2, then there was the UK Government’s 25-Environmental Plan and now the EU plastic strategy meaning the story is gathering pace. Unfortunately, there can be a danger of trying to tackle hugely complicated worldwide issues by concentrating on seemingly low-hanging fruit – something it’s easy to make headlines with – rather than fully considering cause and effect.

Take the 5p bag tax and resultant reduction in single use carrier bags. That’s a good thing right? Much better for the environment of course? Well, actually, not necessarily. And it’s not just someone with a vested interest in the plastics industry saying that.

The government’s Environmental Audit Committee found that: “The environmental impact of an individual carrier bag reduces if people reuse it many times. [And that] …some types of bag would need to be reused for shopping many times in order to avoid an emissions impact greater than that of a single-use bag. A reusable cotton bag, for example, would need to be reused over 130 times (equivalent to daily use for over 4 months) to have the same impact as a thin plastic bag used once. This would increase to 393 times if the plastic bag were used three times. Using carrier bags for waste disposal, such as for lining bins, also reduces their environmental impact by displacing the need to purchase additional swing-bin and pedal bin liners.”

WRAP estimated that 11 million more bin bags were sold in Wales in 2012 than there would have been had the carrier bag charge not been introduced; not really the intended effect.

The Committee also reported that: “A thin bag for life needs to be used four times as often as a single-use plastic bag used once, and thicker bags for life would need to be used 11 times as often”. How many people get these bags and then forget to take them to the shops with them? I’d say it’s a lot which means that many of these ‘environmentally-friendly’ alternatives may well not be living up to their name.

The right tool for the job

Plastics are a popular product thanks to their versatility, resource profile and price. If they weren’t the best option to package products and materials, then manufacturers wouldn’t use them. Although there have been issues with over packaging, plastics cost money so manufacturers and retailers are not using them for the sake of it.

Getting back to the cause and effect argument, what are the alternatives and what would be the impact of using them? Glass is much heavier and so transport costs and emissions are much greater. It’s also far more fragile and can lead to further wastage. As for bags, we’ve already seen that ‘bags for life’ may not be the solution, so what are the other alternatives? Why can’t we return to paper bags is an often-heard refrain, the simple response is why did we stop using them? For one thing if they get damp they can no longer do their job, unlike plastic alternatives. And do you want to store food waste (or any other sort) in a bag which the bottom may drop out of at any time?

The following poster from the British Plastics Federation illustrates why plastic is the sustainable choice. Please click to enlarge.

Reinforce existing environmental legislation

The problems of plastic litter and marine pollution are very real and need tackling. However, they are the result of littering or poor waste management meaning the leakage of valuable resources (plastic is recyclable) from our established infrastructure, not something inherent in the material. The majority of marine litter does not come from Europe so our impact on it can only be minimal at best. Instead of a wholesale attack on plastic and a rush to find alternatives which may have worse consequences, such as an increase in food waste or C02 emissions, let’s take a more rounded approach.

In my opinion, rather than taxes or bans on plastic packaging, which punish everyone, governments should be concentrating efforts on reinforcing existing environmental regulations, and increasing penalties and fines for individuals and corporations who flout the law and create the problem; revenues from fines could pay for clean-ups.

Banning plastic items (it’s not just plastic packaging washing up on the beaches) would have tremendous disadvantages to modern living and would create huge inefficiencies in the supply chain, with associated costs to the environment.

Plastic is part of the solution

From our perspective, we’re in the business of supplying products that are an integral part of the waste management and recycling infrastructure, they stay in the system to the eventual point of disposal, be it recycling, energy from waste, or landfill. Without plastic refuse sacks what would waste be collected in?

If there’s a better solution, I’d like to hear of it. Until then let’s think through the wider impacts, maximise the sustainability of plastics and not just see them as an easy target.