Why I don’t believe going ‘Plastic free’ is the answer…

Celebrities are tweeting about it, bloggers are making content on it and environmentalists have been writing about their experiences for months now. With the media united in attack mode and this topic basically going viral the world over, are you also feeling guilty about your addiction to plastic yet? (Because let’s face it, we are all addicted, whether we realise it or not).

The same material that is currently reeking absolute havoc in our ecosystems on a global scale (check out my previous blog if you want to understand more about that), is mutually responsible for saving the lives of the masses again and again. Our medical equipment, our pills, our clothing, our buildings, furniture, cars, planes, boats and pretty much every item in modern day society is made up somehow composed of plastic. It’s sterile, flexible, lightweight, strong, useful, cheap – the list goes on. At this point, what viable alternative do we have to replace it all? And how do we move forward from here?

These are just a couple of the questions that have been causing me a lot of sleepless nights over the last few months. As an ambassador of the Trash Isles, author of a children’s book all about marine plastic and deliverer of talks, workshops and lessons on this very topic, I can’t help but feel a slight twinge of responsibility to offer some sort of useful advice on this subject. However, if I’m being completely honest, for the last few months I’ve felt quite conflicted myself. I wish that there was a very obvious and simple solution to the position that we are in right now, but the more I have looked, the less confident I feel. And trust me, I have been looking.

I have well and truly opened Pandora’s box and ventured down the rabbit hole. I have met with CEO’s of polymer firms, spoken to governing bodies, recycling plants, conservation groups, environmentalists and scientists, yet the answers are all pointing in the same direction and it is not necessarily the one that people really expect to hear…

The truth is, we can’t go plastic free!

Before you spit that cup of tea out onto your laptop or begin typing that angry tweet, let me elaborate…

Firstly, just think about the way plastic is used. In cars and planes, it’s lightweight, structure and strength make it perfect to get airborne and consume less fuel. In the medicinal world, it’s ability to be sterilised or disposed of immediately, prevent mass infections and disease spread daily. You may be ok with foregoing your plastic bag for shopping, but are you really ok to refuse that blood bag or an IV drip if it came down to it?

Secondly, what should we do with the billions of tonnes of plastic that is already out on the market and in our personal custody? We can’t dump it beneath the ground anymore. It’s common knowledge that the mainstream plastics will not break down without direct access to sunlight. Most of this waste would eventually end up in a water source, then the ocean or another ecosystem and we all know what happens from then on. Out of sight is simply not the answer.

‘Why don’t we burn it?’ I hear you say. Plastic is stored energy after all and as a last resort for some polymers, it might be the best option to turn it into gas (fuel) again. But this releases harmful chemicals into the air and can also contribute to global greenhouse gases. Also, imagine the manpower going through every item in your house and its structure, then having to sort the items by polymer and dispose of each appropriately. Now multiply that by every human on the planet – mind blown? -yeah, mine is too.

But surely we can replace plastic? It’s often suggested we should go back to glass bottles, use paper and cans instead like the ‘good old days’. Let’s face it, the population has increased dramatically since then, alongside our demand for these containers and items. Paper is often coated in plastic (lamination), inked with harmful chemicals or glued with toxins that leak into the water system too. You can still go to any dump today and uproot intact newspapers from fifty years ago, it doesn’t all biodegrade as you’d expect. Mining for the materials like tin or aluminium have other energy and costs implicated in the production process, just as recycling glass has its own environmental impact. These whole industries are yet another Pandora’s box, far too complex to open in one paragraph. But to summarise, there is a reason that we moved so hastily over to this material in the first place.

At the moment the biggest problem that we face is not plastic itself, but it is plastic in the environment and that is something that we can stop immediately. We have created a throwaway culture, where we are not really valuing this material anymore. That mindset needs to change. We need brands and environmentalists to work together to help educate against this and reach wider audiences, just like Lad Bible’s Trash Isles campaign, which has already reached millions of people.

Blaming/scape-goating big corporate bodies may unite a lot of people, but it also removes some of the sense of responsibility for our own actions. At the end of the day, we really need the innovators and investors from these industries to help imagine new solutions and put out these alternative materials in the long run.  We also need their continued support and monetary investment in the awareness campaigns that have driven this public mood change in the first place (yes I said monetary investment – have a look to see how many of these well-known conservation organisations campaigning against marine plastic pollution are actually receiving funding from plastic manufacturers anyway – it may surprise you).

Already we are starting to change the ways we source plastic, e.g. by farming from sugar cane instead of fossil fuels. There are many different types of plastic on the market, from biodegradable, degradable and non-degradable – and I personally believe education around all this is needed and will prove key for future generations. That is why I am working hard with a product designer, to unite the plastic industry, conservation organisations, scientists and brands to deliver free education material for every school in the UK right now.

Ultimately we all know that plastic is bad for the environment. We all want to do something to help. But right now let’s focus on what we CAN do and not what we can’t.

No matter which way you look at it, we really are left with limited options at this point. The best of which, as championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is ‘the circular economy’. Put very simply, we need to stop plastic from escaping into the environment and get to a point where we don’t need to create more. We have to close the system using the good old ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.

  1. Reduce our use of unnecessary/single-use items and replace those that must be thrown away with biodegradable polymers or natural alternatives (there are a few that have been proven to exist – but these must still be disposed of specifically to prevent them from becoming an environmental hazard)
  2. Reuse items as many times as possible before replacing them
  3. Recycle everything we can

The last point is not just referring to an individual level but a corporate scale too. We are now in a position to design cars, boats, planes, houses and furniture out fully recyclable materials. We can reduce the amount of new plastic going into these products too by substituting part of their composition with recycled polymers and we can also salvage more plastic than ever before. And for those items that are dead, we must find a way to retrieve the energy from them by burning them, without putting them back in the ground.

With the world finally waking up to this enormous environmental catastrophe, media attention is only getting more fired up. And that is great. We all need to know more about this situation. However, there is a real danger of people jumping on the bandwagon, without fully realising the facts. Let’s not make this the next ‘Brexit’. Contrary to the title of this blog, I honestly hope there will come a day where the whole world will be plastic free (well plastic as we know it now anyway). I just don’t believe that we are there yet…

 

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