How to win the war on plastic – sustainably

landfill smallThe first episode of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani’s War on Plastic documentary detailed the extent of our use of plastic and the devastating impacts when waste from the west – all too frequently – winds up in uncontrolled dumpsites in places like Malaysia, devastating local communities and environments alike.

This shows the shocking failure of the current system and, unsurprisingly, the audience was alarmed and up in arms following their rallying call to fight a war against plastic. But I detected a worrying trend in the weapon of choice that most viewers instinctively reached for: substitution.

Scrolling through Twitter, I found many tweets inspired by the programme along the lines of the three quoted below (not touched up for grammar):

Lisa: “Stop using small plastic bags for loose fruit & veg, what’s wrong with the old brown paper greengrocers bags?”

Ann: “Why can’t we buy veg in supermarkets and put them in paper bags instead of plastic.”

And, finally, Christopher: “When I was a kid going shopping with my parents, all the vegetables and fruit were loose. My parents selected what they wanted and put the items in to a brown/white paper bags! What’s wrong with the big supermarkets provide paper bags again?”

The problem is throwaway culture
The reason I say this is worrying is because it views plastic alone as the problem, and not a problem that is inherent in rampant throwaway living. While lifecycle analyses have well documented shortcomings (and they certainly don’t currently account for marine plastic pollution), it’s often pointed out that the paper bags these viewers are calling out for can have considerably larger carbon footprints than single use plastic bags and are even less likely to be reused. So unfortunately, simply replacing unnecessary plastic bags with unnecessary paper bags is not a sustainable solution. In many instances, no single use bag is needed to get loose fruit and veg safely from shop to kitchen.

As I’ve argued before, plastic is not the only material with environmental impact (all materials have consequences), and rushing to get rid of plastic without thinking about how we can do so sustainably risks causing other forms of environmental damage. These could include: increasing amounts of unrecyclable waste; increasing carbon emissions; increasing use of fertilisers and water extraction; and continuing problems with marine pollution. No one who is fighting the war against plastic wants this to be the outcome, so it is vital that we approach the challenge in a systemic way.

Confusing and incorrect messages
To its credit, the programme moved on to talk about the benefits of refills and avoiding bottled water. This is definitely positive, and goes against another trend I’ve been observing with bottled water in particular: switches to other equally unnecessary forms of containerised water, namely in aluminium cans, glass bottles or cartons. Next weekend’s Glastonbury festival, for instance, has been applauded for banning plastic water bottles, even though it will still be selling water in cans. As Glastonbury’s plastic ban was paired with the introduction of reusable cups and a system of water fountains, no water should need to be sold in any sort of container. The move is sending the confusing and incorrect message that it is only single use plastic that is a problem.

Instead, the problem often is that our unnecessary single use culture does not properly value the materials we use. Changing this is a real challenge for everyone in society, but it has to be done. We’ll be playing our part, at Green Alliance, with an upcoming report for our Circular Economy Task Force, advocating holistic policies for plastic and beyond. We’ll be aiming to help to win the war against problematic plastic without losing a wider war against environmental degradation. Watch this space.

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