Plastics are bad. But what’s the alternative?

The media is bursting with the sudden, violent hype around reducing our reliance on plastics and switching to ‘eco-friendly’ substitutes. But what exactly are we going to replace it with? And does that simply push our consumption issues elsewhere?

More haste, less speed

Companies are under huge pressure to reduce their plastic packaging and replace it with other more ‘sustainable’ and ‘recyclable’ solutions. Iceland was the first major retailer to commit to being 100% plastic free by 2023, setting the standard for waste reduction which has seen the media dominated by announcements from other supermarkets and retailers since. Even the Prime Minister has vowed to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042. This is all due to consumer pressures and changes in our values and expectations – go us! But are we pushing them too hard, too quickly? Risking decisions to be made in haste with terrible and far-reaching unforeseen consequences?

As much as I want to see plastic use and waste cut drastically, I worry about the alternatives and if in a couple of decades we’ll have another type of waste epidemic on our hands.

A replacement is only a distraction

My niggle of worry led me to read the book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. Despite it being a decade since it was last published, it seems to be confirming all my apprehension that “less is not good enough’ and alternatives can often be worse than the problem we are trying to tackle. More often than not, merely sweeping it under the carpet, hidden by the so-called sustainable and eco-friendly alternative.

So, if we are going to reduce plastic waste, what are we going to use instead? And how do we know that they truly are good, sustainable and environmentally supportive?

Quick decisions have been made on the switch to bioplastics, such as Lego, but the plant-based plastics aren’t what they seem. In 2015 a study on biodegradable plastics by chemists at Michigan State University found that they simply don’t work. Even the government’s research into bioplastics published in 2010 beamed alarm signals due to the land mass required to grow such plastic alternatives. This article from Environmental Leader provides a little insight into the risks of big bioplastic uptake. I’ll be looking to cover the topic further in a future blog post.

Straws have had a bad rep since the video of the poor turtle with a straw up its nose went viral. Many eateries have stopped offering them or switching to the apparently “more sustainable” option of paper straws. Even the government has suggested they could be banned altogether. But is paper a better alternative? A life-cycle assessment undertaken by the Scottish government on single-use plastic bags vs paper bags found that a ‘paper bag has a more adverse impact than a plastic bag for most of the environmental issues considered’. Even a study from Defra found that a cotton shopping bag needed to be used a whopping 173 times before its impact became less than a plastic bag.

The metal material lead got pretty bad press over 10 years ago too and subsequently banned from TVs, other electricals and more. But do you know what replaced it? Or even care to consider? Instead, we use tin, silver, copper, nickel, and bismuth. All rare and/or toxic elements. Is toxic, but not as toxic, really an adequate solution?

Switching all our plastic cartons and drinks bottle back to glass is a common suggestion too. Glass is made from sand, a renewable resource right? Wrong. Sand is the most mined resource on earth and whilst it may seem plentiful, according to an article from Verdict, only certain kinds of sands are actually useful for construction purposes. “Desert sand, for example, isn’t suitable for either construction or use as silicon due to its worn, rounded edges, so instead it is river banks and beaches that are being plundered.”

research paper released on ScienceDaily by the University of Maryland stated that “engineers have found a way to make wood more than 10 times stronger and tougher than before, creating a natural substance that is stronger than many titanium alloys”. Whilst this is a fantastic development for modern day engineering, what impact could this then have if utilised in construction on our already grossly depleted rainforests and wood resources? Which is the lesser of two evils?

Creating a circular, closed-loop economy

The solution to plastic waste shouldn’t just be about wrapping it in some other material that in a decade’s time will be attacked in the media much like plastic is today. We need to find sense in what we are trying to achieve and look at the bigger picture, not just find a quick fix to the next global issue so we can get on with making more money.

This needs to be a circular, not linear economy, with opportunities to drive increased recycling and reuse, along with a reduction in our consumption though access-over-ownership initiatives. In addition, to have legislation forcing manufacturers and retailers to take responsibility for their own end products, providing opportunities for their customers to close the loop, return old, unwanted goods to be refurbished or recycled back into the product lifecycle. Read my previous blog to find out a little more about what the circular economy is.

So, whilst 2042 seems a long way off and a pretty unambitious target, I do believe giving us time to come up with the right solutions, not just quick and dirty ones, is an important part of creating a truly sustainable future.



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