“As petroleum came to the relief of the whale,” said an 1878 promotional pamphlet for the world’s first industrial plastic, “so has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts, and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”
Fast forward to 2018 and we know that petroleum, which replaced whale oil as the world’s fuel of choice, has been responsible for climate change on an unprecedented scale. We also know, as I recently wrote, that plastic, which was designed to prevent environmental harm by replacing ivory, tortoiseshell, coral and plenty of other materials, has been leaking into the environment at an alarming rate, creating “one of the great environmental scourges of our time”.
And so we need a solution to what was originally hailed as a solution. But, unlike when plastic was developed and ‘throwaway living’ was so enthusiastically embraced, we now, theoretically, recognise the need to move towards a circular economy. That means ensuring materials are kept in productive use for as long as possible and are then recovered or regenerated rather than being wasted at the end of their life. We also know a lot more about lifecycle analyses and their shortcomings when it comes to looking at end of life treatment and to plastic pollution.
Let’s use foresight to avoid more environmental harm
Knowing what we know now, we should think very carefully about the potential consequences of the solutions we promote. It’s possible that we won’t be able to predict all the implications, but that cannot excuse us from using our extensive foresight on this issue.
I can tell you now that replacing highly recyclable plastic with lower quality and less recyclable composites will not solve the problem. One of the reasons recycling rates have not reached the levels we would like to see is that it has sometimes proved difficult to get the economics to stack up. Low value, difficult to recycle materials exacerbate this problem, as succinctly summarised by a director at America’s largest waste company: “On the back end, you are left with bales of unwanted materials or mixed residues destined for landfill. As the value of materials continue to degrade and hybrid products [eg laminated pouches, such as those used for pet foods] increase, it is becoming harder to justify new technologies to effectively capture the ever evolving packages [for recycling].”
Switching from fossil-fuel based plastics to those made from virgin crops, meanwhile, would increase the use of fertilisers and water extraction, and could wind up putting greater pressure on our food supply. It is true that making bio-based plastics currently requires a tiny proportion of arable land. But making all the world’s plastics from crops could require around five per cent of the biomass produced and harvested a year. This still might sound small but, if plastic production triples as expected by 2050 and we choose to make it from crops, that would require 15 per cent of the world’s harvest, which would inevitably make it harder to feed a growing population.
And what about the idea of making bio-based or biodegradable plastics from more sustainable material like agricultural wastes, instead of virgin crops? While that would be better, it still will not solve the marine plastic crisis. Bio-based plastics that mimic the chemistry of traditional plastics aren’t biodegradable and will have all the potential drawbacks of traditional plastic at the end of their life. Biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, could complicate established recycling systems if they are not separately collected. To be treated effectively, they need to composted in industrial composting facilities for a number of weeks to degrade properly. This requires specific conditions – namely light, heat and oxygen, three things that are difficult to come by in the depths of the ocean. And if you give people plastic and tell them it is biodegradable, there is evidence to suggest they are then more likely to discard it in the environment, which would make pollution on land and at sea even worse.
The first step should be to get back to basics
Above all, hunting for a ‘drop in’ substitute for plastic would be misguided in the extreme. That would mean repeating the folly of those billiard fanatics who wanted a cheaper, more sustainable substance to replace ivory. The world has moved on too far, in thoroughly embracing ‘throwaway living’, to be able to simply replace plastic with any substance, no matter how clever or technologically impressive it is.
We need to go back to basics, to the three ‘R’s: first to reduce the total amount of unnecessary plastics used, while also reducing the potentially dangerous substances found in some plastics and rationalising the baffling array of plastic types that make plastic recycling so difficult; second, to promote new and old systems that allow for reuse, including increasing public water fountains, and decreasing the use of single use items like coffee cups; finally, to ensure that the plastic we do use is recyclable and recycled – or compostable and composted – and that good systems are in place to make it sure it is done well.