January was an interesting month. First, there were the catastrophic fires in Australia, which saw the loss of human lives, flora and fauna. Then, news broke that for many countries like the UK, Italy and India, the last decade was the hottest decade on record. And a few days ago, China announced that it is going to ban single use plastics by 2020.
This ban brought attention to single-use plastics – or SUP – once again. And to be fair, it is not without good reason. Single-use plastics are typically plastics such as containers, bags, straws, cutlery, cotton buds etc, that are thrown away after one use. In some cases, single use items are actually very important, and even crucial. For example, medical equipment like needles or gloves where single use items are used to prevent contamination.
But for the most part, SUP are associated with plastic pollution and therefore are immediately linked to having a negative environmental impact. This is not wrong but in order to make a bold statement like “all plastics are evil”, there is a lot of information that needs to be taken into consideration.
There is evidence that if the soft drink industry started to use glass, tin or aluminum bottles instead of plastic ones the environmental cost would be 5 times higher. And if you think about it, it makes sense. Glass is a lot heavier than plastic and that means a rise in its transportation carbon footprint. In addition, the carbon footprint for the production of these materials is also higher than that of plastic. There is also evidence that food packaging extends the shelf life of a product, like wrapping a cucumber with a thin layer of plastic film can prolong its shelf life from 3 to 14 days. Even items like plastic bags, which we know are not great for the environment, need looking at more closely. Why? There are studies that show that cotton and fabric bags have higher environmental footprint than plastic bags and need to be reused for several years in order to balance out their production carbon footprint. That doesn’t mean plastic bags are better than cotton – we just need to consider the number of times a cotton bag is reused.
On the other side, there is undeniable evidence that single-use plastics can cause a plethora of problems, especially when they end up in the ecosystem. Videos of animals caught in plastic regularly surface the internet. We see images of plastic straws stuck in turtles’ noses, giant whales dead onshore and bloated with plastics from mistaking litter for food, and let’s not forget the cases where animals like penguins, otters and birds –among others- get caught on disposable plastics and are unable to break free without human help.
For some people though, the most worrying part about plastics leaking into the environment is microplastics. When plastic breaks down into smaller particles, called microplastics, it can neither get detected easily nor removed from nature. To make matters worse, microplastics are composed of the chemicals that were used for plastic production, the majority of which are toxic. Because of their small size, microplastics are digested by small fish, birds and other animals, entering the food chain and eventually ending up in human bodies.
There is a lot of information to unfold here but it would be foolish to argue that all plastic is evil. So many things are made of plastic nowadays, that it’s clear it can be a useful material. Look around you. Your laptop/computer is made of plastic, so are some electric appliances, remote controls, even small beauty bags. The list is endless. Because of its flexibility and rigidness, plastic has turned out to be very useful over the years.
So what’s the answer? Should we use plastic or not? Well, that is the difficult thing. It isn’t a clear cut answer.
One thing you can ask yourself is: does me using this plastic product balance out its production footprint and recycling footprint? Because it’s not just producing plastics that uses resources. Many people, myself included, tend to forget that reycling takes a lot of energy and water, as well as resources to transport it.
If the answer to the above question is yes, then sustainability-wise it should be considered OK to use plastic, even single-use plastics. This may feel controversial, as there is a trend towards “plastic shaming” where people feel embarassed if they are using a plastic product. But if your decision as a consumer is based on facts and is well researched, this should not be a cause for personal shame. Bear in mind that consumer choices have the power to shape and change business and state policies. Shame-driven consumer choices should not be the driver behind any potential change, as it very often –hilariously- backfires.
Another important point when you are trying to make an informed decision about which products to use is to always remember to not rely on a single source of information. Double check facts and figures, follow links, investigate further and find as much as you possibly can about the issue you are concerned about. It is possible you might not be able to find an exact answer (see recycling footprint above). That is fine. The truth is, there are questions that even experts don’t have a clear answer for.
When in doubt, just remember this: sustainability is not black and white. It is almost never clear cut and that is why it is so hard to achieve. The important thing is to take the best decision possible, based on the information that is available to you, now.