The Problem with Plastic…and with #Plasticfree
Maybe it was the bottle caps you stumbled across on that remote beach many years ago, or perhaps it was the dulcet tones of the legendary Sir David Attenborough as he narrated Blue Planet II, which first drew your attention to this environmental crises. Either way, it is inconsequential now as we are all facing the same huge challenge – what should we do about plastic pollution?
With albatross starving, orca washing up poisoned, and turtles choking on carrier bags, it’s not surprising we are all frustrated and eager to do something. If the loss of many iconic wildlife species wasn’t enough motivation to get you on the bandwagon, perhaps the fact some of our own food is now being contaminated by toxic plastic will be.
As such an emotive topic, many of us are looking for a solution to get behind, and perhaps that explains the sudden trend towards the movement of ‘Plastic free’. However, if we really hope to solve a problem, first we must fully understand it and the gravity of our current situation.
Firstly, think about the amount of plastic we come into contact with each day (she says typing from a plastic keyboard). From single use items, textiles, transport and right through to our homes (window frames, cavity wall insulation, damp proofing) you will find this material on mass. It would not be an easy task to phase out plastic use, nor would it be easy to dispose of it all.
Another prime example of our reliance on plastic, is the medical world. Blood bags, IV drips, syringes, plastic bedding, pill coatings and life support units are just some of the products made from plastic in the medical industry. Until we find a reasonable alternative to all of this, our lives are (quite literally) dependant upon it.
Some might suggest we turn to previous alternatives: glass, aluminium or paper. In some instances this could be a solution. Another option is that we all sacrifice a few convenience items such as plastic bottles, straws, bags and tampon applicators. However, in some must-have products and packaging, the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side…could we really stop using plastic altogether?
On Monday 15th January, Iceland announced their plans to replace all own-brand plastic packaging with paper or paper pulp alternatives. This sounds great on paper (excuse the pun), and I’m always keen to see household name brands implementing strategies to reduce their environmental impact. However, in this instance it might not be so simple. Having worked as a naturalist in the world’s biggest temperate rainforest in Canada, a country whose biggest export was trees, I can tell you first hand that using vast amounts of paper does not come without cost either.
The pulp and paper industry is one of the biggest contributors to deforestation and has a significant effect on climate change. Planting a sapling tree to replace a fully grown tree is no replacement. It can take approximately 60 to 70 years for the new tree to grow to a size where it can actually substitute for the one removed, by which time it’s prime size to be harvested again. Secondly, most replanting schemes only plant desired tree species and prevent naturally occurring trees, like red alder, from growing. These trees have an important role of replacing nutrients back into the soil to support sustained growth. Removal of large areas of trees can also kill wild salmon stocks which has a massive cascade effect on the food chain.
Although Iceland is proposing to use recycled paper and pulp, the manufacturing process of such material takes a lot of energy and the chemicals used to bleach and colour paper are often toxic and can leak into the environment. Furthermore, once treated, paper doesn’t break down as easily as you’d expect in landfill. The processes of recycling or disposal, both release harmful greenhouse gases. In terms of recycling, it takes 91% more energy to recycle paper than it does plastic, on a weight-for-weight basis.
That said, we do need to change. The questions is how?
Not all plastic is created equal; there are many different types on the market all with different uses. Already developers have created biodegradable forms that can break down in water (such as PVOH) or others that are compostable at home. Recycling processes are advancing and we now know how to make plastic from waste food products or plant bases, so that we don’t have to use fossil fuels as a source anymore.
Rather than writing off an entire industry of inventors, we could work together. Plastic manufacturers, brands, media and the public can do more to share information and support new technology that could eventually lead us to a healthier future.
Currently, the biggest threat caused by plastic, is when it escapes into the environment. Until we have a real viable replacement, we need to prevent this from happening and work on removing as much pollution as possible. This is where education, better labelling and more investment in recycling facilities will help. If we can do this, we may also be able to produce less and ensure that the plastic we do use is absolutely necessary, valued and not seen as a throwaway item. It’s time we changed our whole perception of plastic.