While plastic is the best material for protecting food and reducing food-borne diseases—and should be supported over suboptimal alternatives—not all types of plastic should be accepted without qualification.
The solution does not lie with more bans or regulation, either. The report from Jefferies Financial Group warns they may not be enough to ensure that a global target of 50% recycling rate is achieved by 2030. Indeed, bans may even represent a setback. Take South Australia, which has moved to ban oxo-biodegradable technology without really understanding it—a grave example of ‘plastiphobia’ getting in the way of dialogue and responsible decision-making. The ban may take a low-cost and viable alternative off the market and prevent the region from doing its share in tackling one of the planet’s most acute challenges.
Bans and tighter regulation will reduce but will not stop plastic getting into the open environment— despite policymakers’ best efforts—but they may severely limit or eliminate our ability to deal with it. I hope that governments around the world would, on reflection, agree that this is not a good outcome for anyone.
Finally, let’s not think that recycling is suitable for everything. According to the recycling charity RECOUP, “in cases where plastic products are particularly lightweight and contaminated with other materials, the energy and resources used in a recycling process may be more than those required for producing new plastics. In such cases, recycling may not be the most environmentally sound option.” It is too costly in financial and environmental terms to collect it, transport it, sort it, bail it, store it, and then reprocess it, which is why it is being dumped in the Far East, or at least it was.
When plastic becomes waste, its calorific value can be used to generate electricity if, instead of being sent to landfill as unsuitable for mechanical recycling, it is sent to modern, non-polluting thermal-recycling units.
An over-emphasis on recycling targets, therefore, should not lead us to ignore another urgent problem that is likely to persist well into the future: What happens to plastic if it gets out into our oceans and is dispersed on land?
About the author
Michael Stephen is Chairman of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association (London).