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Did plastics create our throwaway society?

Article-Did plastics create our throwaway society?

litter in forest
In a blog post, the editor of EPPM, a magazine for Europe’s plastics processors, laments the contribution of plastics to our throwaway society. What’s the answer?

“Plastic waste is abhorrent,” writes Rose Brooke, editor of EPPM, in a blog post. She laments the disappointment she feels when her “view of the countryside” is disrupted by the “sight of a crisp packet in a hedgerow.” It is, said Brooke, “the constant and indelible reminder of ourselves as a lazy, consumption-driven society that too many of us haven’t the patience or the sensitivity to hang on to our packaging to dispose of responsibly.”

I know the feeling. As much as I love the plastics industry and appreciate what plastics have done for society as a whole over the past 50 years, my heart drops when I find plastic litter thrown carelessly in our parks. Another black eye on the industry, I think, as I pick it up and carry it to a trash bin or, better yet, a recycling container. If I can carry this piece of plastic until I find a proper place to dispose of it, couldn’t the person who carelessly threw it on the ground in the first place have done the same thing?

I agree with Brooke in some respects, but disagree with her when she writes, “Society has a consumption problem.” No, society has a littering problem. Consumption in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Consumption drives the economic engine that keeps our economies thriving, people working at jobs—jobs in the plastics industry.

Brooke also said that “landfill, too, is an embarrassing reminder of our throwaway society,” noting that we “landfill valuable electrical products” that can possibly be repaired or reused. She mentioned the Dec. 6 UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, at which the UN condemned marine plastics as a “planetary crisis.” She then points to the fact that plastic doesn’t have an image problem, but, rather, “is not fully understood as a contributing technology to the lives we lead.”

Brooke was invited to respond to a piece by BBC Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin after the UN resolution was announced, to be delivered live on BBC radio. She was asked to “respond to the claim that the world is searching for the Holy Grail of biodegradable plastic technology as a panacea to the world’s pollution problems.”

Her response to that search is very similar to my own. “The notion that plastics that biodegrade in the environment is the solution to marine litter is as unworkable as it is irresponsible,” Brooke writes in her blog. “Before you even look at the mechanics of how this would work, the message that it sends is simply that plastics are disposable, which does not address the fact that the plastics end up in the environment in the first place.

“Setting the ultimate goal of converting everything to biodegradable plastics (would that were even possible) flies in the face of the hard work the European Commission and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are doing to establish the Plastics Circular Economy.”

I recently received a commentary from Sam Boileau, environmental consultant at London-based law firm Dentons, commenting on the call for evidence on the use of a tax system or charges to reduce single-use plastics waste. “The Chancellor has announced a call for evidence in 2018 ‘seeking views on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single-use plastics waste, building on the success of the existing plastic carrier bag charges.’ Environmental groups will see this is as a positive development, albeit that it falls short of a substantive proposal,” said Boileau, who cites the “quantity of plastics in the oceans” that “has been increasing at an alarming rate.”

Boileau points out that current international rules regarding ocean pollution, including Article 145 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, have appeared to do little in preventing the proliferation of trash in the world’s oceans. This is due to the lack of binding solutions to address the problem.

“This is largely because this is a very difficult problem to solve,” said Boileau. “Most importantly, it is multi-headed, like the mythical Hydra. Plastics entering the oceans come from multiple sources, including microbeads from cosmetics, fibers from clothing, discarded plastic and litter, and road drainage and domestic and commercial effluent.”

Brooke noted the fact that each type of plastic has been developed for specific applications and primarily made for its strength, toughness and long-lasting durability; for that reason, biodegradability is not the answer. She encourages waste management systems that are already in place to invest in technology to sort difficult-to-recycle plastics.

“Before we even reach that point,” commented Brooke, “I have to return to my original argument—that marine plastics are a result of human carelessness, selfishness and short-sightedness. A turtle dying is tragic, but it is not because of the engineers and stakeholders involved in manufacturing a material and a product that has been made for the convenience of the consumer. A turtle dying is tragic probably because some fool doesn’t have the presence of mind to keep hold of their waste and dispose of it correctly. And even if they dispose of it correctly, what would happen to it? Would it be reprocessed into recycled materials for clothing? Or would it languish in a landfill?”

Brooke is correct in her questioning. Even recyclates need to be of a certain quality—i.e. clean, free of food debris and glue-applied labels and sorted in their proper plastic type. I’ve been told by several people—off the record, of course—that I’d be surprised at the amount of potentially recyclable plastics that go to the landfill because of problems with the material.

So, would a levy or charge on single-use plastic items be an answer? What will the consumer be willing to pay for the privilege of eating ice cream from a plastic container? Boileau concluded that a “bag levy is likely to have less impact than an outright ban on single-use plastic items, which some jurisdictions [such as France] are pursuing.”

Brooke gives the plastics industry credit for its efforts to invest in R&D and to pursue bio feedstocks “to make the whole supply chain less wasteful in every way to bring value and or quality to the consumer,” she stated. “The plastics industry does care about sustainability. What the world needs is an understanding and appreciation of plastics as a resource, and a drive to close the circular economy loop, but it is up to the plastics industry, brand owners, governments and the consumer if this is to work.”

Is waste-to-energy the best answer for all of this? Plastic is a valuable energy source that can be used to produce a badly needed product. That would seem to be better than bag bans and levies/taxes, or collecting mountains of trash from the oceans and shipping it to some recycling facility for sorting, cleaning, baling and further shipping to reprocessors—all of which takes an enormous amount of fossil-fuel energy to accomplish. That would negate any “green” benefits that might be derived from the effort.

The “problem” of plastics is a complex one and the answer will be equally complex. The “people problem” in this equation is even more difficult to solve.

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