There’s no denying that plastic has become demonised. What must’ve been hailed as a miracle product when it went mainstream in the 1950s is now an environmental nightmare.
And quite rightly so – we’re all aware of the downsides to the convenience culture of plastic.
Manufacturing plastic produces toxins that are bad news for us and the environment. Plastic doesn’t break down and hangs around for years. It kills unsuspecting wildlife. Even recycling it pollutes the environment – and only 9% of plastic has ever been recycled!
But all plastics now seem to have become a scapegoat for all that’s wrong with the world. That’s why we think it’s important to highlight why plastic is good – sometimes.
The Benefits of Plastic
There’s no doubt that certain single use plastics are bad news. Or that we can all strive to use less plastic. The last thing any self respecting eco warrior wants to be seen with is a plastic water bottle. But there are many reasons why plastic is good – even some single use plastics.
In the medical industry, plastics are used to keep things sterile. Syringes and surgical implements are all plastic and single use. They wouldn’t survive the temperatures needed to kill bacteria and viruses by heat sterilisation.
Sterilising metal syringes simply isn’t feasible. Glass is too dangerous and heavy. It would be a brave person who thinks that reusing a plastic catheter in a different patient is a good idea.
The benefits of plastic extend into far reaching areas of our lives. Plastics protect our heads in the form of helmets. They keep us safer in our cars in the form of seatbelts, fuel tanks, windscreens and airbags.
Plastic also helps to insulate our homes and make them more energy efficient. Window trims, front door frames and cavity wall insulation materials are generally made from plastic.
Food-wise, plastic keeps food fresh and affordable and helps to tackle the food waste problem. Shipping food in plastic is cheaper and less resource intensive than shipping it in glass.
Many foods are wrapped in unnecessary amounts of plastic. There’s little doubt this needs to change. But asking the food industry to completely ditch plastic when we need affordable food and lots of it, isn’t the answer.
Who remembers burning their behinds on metal playground slides heated up by the sun? Or getting splinters from wooden swing seats? For the sake of our kids, there are some playtime benefits to plastic too!
The Real Problem Is Avoidable Single Use Plastic
It’s impossible to live a plastic free existence. Using your bank card, sitting on the bus, driving to the station. They all involve plastic. And that’s before you’ve even had the chance to say “soya flat white in my bamboo coffee cup please”.
However, we do need to drastically reduce our dependence on most single use plastics.
Plastic bottles, straws, drinks stirrers, coffee cups and shopping bags. These are all bad news and there are so many reusable alternatives now available.
Plastic Alternatives Aren’t Always a Picture of Perfection
We can’t consider plastic in isolation – there are many factors to consider. Instead, we need to take a balanced approach to the plastic problem.
Demanding a plastic free world will only push the problem elsewhere. And sometimes, the alternatives are worse.
Glass is heavy and takes more resources to ship. It can be wasteful too – if glass breaks in the food chain or on a production line, the whole lot needs to be scrapped. It’s also very expensive to recycle.
Metals such as tin and aluminium are lighter. But they still need to be mined and the world only has a limited resource of both. Plus many metals oxidise over time, causing potential contamination problems.
Bamboo is a great natural alternative to plastic cups, straws, cutlery and plates. But is importing bamboo from China the answer? Especially when it’s thought that so much of it comes from poorly controlled forests. These forests often have irresponsible logging practices and overuse pesticides.
Biodegradable or compostable plastics are great. These ‘bioplastics’ are made using renewable plant material such as corn, rather than petroleum. But for biodegradable packaging to breakdown, it needs to be in an industrial composting facility. Plus, some biodegradable plastics have been found to be far from biodegradable.
Then there’s the humble cloth tote bag. Cotton requires more water and energy to produce than the plastics used to make carrier bags.
Yep, I was shocked too. How many cotton bags do you have at home? Loads, if you’re anything like me.
Paper bags don’t do much better either. Paper bags take four times more energy and generate more air and water pollutants to make than plastic bags. (Keep in mind though, that paper and cotton are made from renewable sources and are still better options. They’re also less damaging to the environment when they break down in landfill.)
So folks, it’s complicated. But the first step to becoming a more mindful consumer is understanding the issues across the board.
Accepting Why Plastic Is Good and Balancing the Equation
The benefits of plastic to certain industries – such as healthcare – are plain to see.
Easily accessible in an emergency, safe, sterile equipment is imperative to safe medical practice. In some cases, plastic alternatives aren’t suitable. Sometimes plastic is a good, cheap or sturdy necessity.
Banning all plastic isn’t the answer. Significantly reducing our reliance on avoidable single use plastics is.
But this isn’t to say we should feel guilty if we don’t get it right all the time. There will be times when we need to buy a bottle of water or indulge in a plastic wrapped treat. We can take solace in using a reusable coffee cup on all those other occasions.
It’s taken decades to get us to the plastic crisis we face now. We’re not going to solve the problem overnight.
So let’s all do our bit to spark a gradual but forceful change. Let’s aim to reduce and reuse where we can and consider our purchases more carefully. Future generations quite simply depend on it.