We hate plastics. They’re ruining the environment, one disposable bag at a time. Plastic waste is overwhelming us, from the beached whale with 40kg of plastic in his stomach, to widespread reports that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish if we do not change our behaviour by 2050. But are we being fair to plastics? Are they really ones destroying the planet? Prof. Kim Ragaert doesn’t think so:
I’m here to preach for a plastics rehab. You might be expecting me to say that we as a society need to kick the habit of plastics, but I am up to something a little more devious than that… I am here to make you doubt. To tell the side of the story that does not get social media coverage. Why do I have to do this? Because we hate plastics. We despise plastics. Plastics can’t possibly be sustainable – they’re even made from oil. Plastic waste is overwhelming us today. Just last month, a dead whale beached up with 40kg of plastic in his stomach. We read reports that, if we do nothing by 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean, and plastic waste in the environment is so abundant, it has been suggested as a marker for the current geological era. That’s bad. But are we being entirely fair to plastics? Are they really the ones destroying the planet?
Let’s have a look:
Generally, we are mad at plastics for not degrading into the environment. So, what? Why do you expect them to? Metals don’t degrade into the environment – we don’t blame them. Plastics are a resource, just like the metals, and we should not be thinking in terms of throwing resources into the world and expecting them to just disappear. No. Recover them, recycle them, keep them in the materials loop and out of the environment in the first place, and get this degradation nonsense out of your head.
When we think about shaming plastics, we tend to wander towards food packaging. We think that most of them are unnecessary. Are they really? For example, less than 2g of plastic will package a cucumber. This will extend the shelf life by 11 days. The shelf life of a steak is extended by 26 days. A little bit of plastic will prevent a whole lot of food waste. On average, the CO2 emissions required to make this plastic packaging is less than 10% of the CO2 we have emitted to make the food in the first place. Moreover, the amount of CO2 emissions that plastics prevent by preventing the food waste is 5 times the amount we’ve needed to make the plastics. Plastic is fantastic when you consider its functionality!
We are still convinced that the alternatives to plastic are always better. Why is that? You want to do the right thing for the environment, so you make decisions based on what you know to be right without any scientific evidence, but because it is known. This is what we call environmental folklore. It is the stories we take for granted without checking the facts, and it is possible to check those facts. Scientists can make an objective comparison between products by taking into account not only the amount of materials something will use, but also how much land, water and energy you will consume along the way. All of this translates into a footprint and, in terms of footprint, we tend to focus on CO2 emissions, but there’s more. There are also effects on human health, on the ozone layer and on the quality of land and water.
What we need to realise in all of this is that plastics are strong, lightweight materials. They have half the density of glass and about the same density as paper, but because they are so strong, we can make plastics packaging really thin compared to the others. Almost always, the plastic packaging will consume a lot less resources and be a lot more efficient in transportation.
Bottles. Let’s go there. For drinks bottles, we use about 24 times as much glass as we would plastics to package the same amount of liquid and because glass is heavier, we will spend almost twice as much on transport. But we can reuse those glass bottles, right? Yes, you can, but not indefinitely. You can re-use a water bottle about 8 times before it needs to be re-melted into a new glass bottle. And in the re-use phase, you will use water and really aggressive chemicals for the intermediate cleaning.
But fair is fair. We can re-use the bottles 8x, so we could reduce these material blocks to 3 instead of 24. However, if we are truly being fair, plastic bottles get recycled, at least here in Europe. Let’s put a pessimistic number on that and say that only 50% gets recycled, then the amount of plastics effectively used is also halved. So even considering the re-use of glass, we still use 6x as much glass as we do plastics.
That’s a huge amount of material which you need to source and process into bottles, using up energy and water to do so, and emitting CO2. Did you know that glass melts at 1500°C, while the plastic for drink bottles melts at 300°C? The amount of energy required is stunning. Take all of this together and glass really isn’t the green champion we imagine it to be. Plastic bottles supported by a good recycling scheme and consumers that actually recycle are in fact better for the environment as a whole.
Whole cities or even countries are starting to ban plastics bags outright. We really shouldn’t be cheering that on. Let’s take the worst case for plastics, one of those thin grocery bags made out of new plastic and let’s assume that you throw it away after a single use. Which you don’t have to, but let’s assume you do. And let’s compare that to the best case for paper — a paper bag that is already made of a 100% recycled paper. The plastic bag weighs 20g, the paper bag 50g. Paper requires more energy to make (or even recycle), as well as significantly more land, trees and water. If we calculate it through, the footprint of the plastic bag is so small, that you would have to re-use your paper bag four times, for it to be more environmental. Four times. Let’s be honest here, which one of you uses the same paper bag 4 times? You don’t. But surely, you will think, using your very nice and robust cotton shopper bag is saving the environment? Well…the production of cotton uses so much land and water that you would have to re-use that cotton shopper more than 170 times. If you go to the store every week, that would mean 3 years of re-using the same bag every week, just to beat the thin plastic throw-away bag. Which doesn’t have to be thrown away. And if it is thrown away, it doesn’t have to be incinerated. We CAN recycle this.
In fact, the very best alternatives are the re-usable plastics bags which you buy at the cash register. The robust non-woven shoppers will break-even after re-using them 20x. That’s less than half a year of weekly shopping. Everything after that is pure environmental gain.
Of course, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns for plastics. Let’s circle back to plastics in the oceans and on the beaches. It’s bad. It really is. But can we blame it on plastics themselves?
If someone parks their car in the middle of the street, so it’s all blocked, do you blame the car? No, you blame the idiot who put it there.
Research shows that over 80% of littering is 1. intentional and 2. done by individuals. That’s you and me. The Consumer. Not big bad industry, not plastics. Us. We are the idiots.
Well, some of those scientists did the math. If we ban all plastics in packaging and replace them with alternatives like aluminium, glass or paper, the use of resources and energy required and the resulting CO2 release would increase massively. Because these alternatives use more resources to make and because they do not conserve food as well as plastics.
So banning plastics is definitely not the way to go. But then what is? Are you confused yet? Are you depressed yet? Be critical instead. Do not go blindly to war on plastics, just because they are the most visibly littered material. Realise that plastics are functional, precious materials that we need to keep in the materials loop.
Also, realise you have power. May be even superpowers. You are THE consumer. You can push the market to sustainability. Did you know that dark colours, like the purple used for some washing detergent bottles are bad for recycling? It’s because dark items are not detected in automated bottle sorting, so they are wasted. Producers know this. Why do they keep putting it on the market anyway? Because it’s prettier than a white or transparent bottle and marketing says you and I are more inclined to buy it.
If you do not buy products in hard-to-recycle plastics packaging, they will not make them.
If you do not buy individually wrapped cookies, they will not sell them.
If you demand to be able to return your plastic grocery bags to the store for recycling, they might just listen.
So please do have a Plastics Rehab, but let it be in your perceptions as well as your well-intended actions. Dare to think beyond the environmental folklore that plastics are automatically bad. Check your facts. Be a hero, not a hater.
Find Kim’s full list of sources and credits here
Prof. Kim Ragaert works in the field of Sustainable Use and Recycling of Polymers and Composites and has dedicated much of her focus to the circularity and recycling of plastics. Kim is also Chair of the Plastics to Resource pipeline within CAPTURE, a Ghent University initiative that seeks to recover CO2, water and plastics.
This is an extract from a 2019 talk delivered by Kim Ragaert entitled "Plastics Rehab” delivered at TEDxVlerickBusinessSchool, published under a Creative Commons Attribution License