There's simply no shortage of places where we can do this - credit Michelle Arseneault via Wikipedia

One of the current passing fashions that mystifies is this demonisation of plastics. It’s simply very difficult to understand how people arrive at the conclusion that we’ve all got to stop using the stuff. Sure, we don’t want it all clogging up the oceans but that’s a waste management problem, not something to drive the abolition of the use in the first place. There are two arguments put forward to insist upon reducing plastics use, despite and over and above that waste management problem, both of which are wrong.

Erik Solheim makes one of those mistakes here:

Unlike other environmental challenges, sceptics are hard-pressed to refute the reality of what we can see with our own eyes. Instead, the counter-narrative aims to undercut the urgency of efforts to beat plastic pollution – sometimes by painting the problem as a waste management issue, as if we had infinite landfill space.

The thing being we do actually have infinite landfill space. OK, obviously not infinite, infinite, as the universe itself seems not to be that. But compared to our usage, yes, we do have infinite space available:

So just how critical is the UK’s supply of landfill sites? Well, not very at all. We quarry about 260 million tonnes (mt) a year of land minerals, mostly limestone, granite and sand and gravel, plus 9mt a year of opencast coal. In terms of volume, that equates to new holes with a capacity of about 110 million cubic metres (mcm) a year. Our existing licenced holes have a capacity of about 700 mcm. We produce less than 100mcm of waste and refuse a year. The system, as scientists would say, is therefore in equilibrium.

We already dig holes in the ground with greater capacity than the rubbish we wish to put into holes in the ground. Each year we do so. That’s an infinite supply when considering any likely levels of usage.

The claim itself is wrong. Which is a bit of a problem given that Solheim is at the UN:

Erik Solheim
UN Environment Executive Director and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations

Yes, that does explain something about how the world is run, doesn’t it? Someone who is one of those running that international system believes something which simply isn’t true. And then designs and recommends policy based upon that simple untruth. Actually, it explains rather a lot about why the world is quite as screwed as it is. Designing policy without noting reality is unlikely to work well.

The other major mistake made in this crusade against plastics is to claim that we need to preserve precious natural resources. In the case of plastic this is oil, or increasingly today natural gas, the things they’re made out of. Yet those very same environmentalists tell us we’ve already found more oil and gas than we can allow ourselves to burn. Meaning that they’re not scarce and precious natural resources at all – even if they’re still scarce in that economic sense.

The end result of all of this is that plastics really are just a waste management problem. As such it isn’t true that recycling, a circular economy, or the non-use of plastics are a necessary solution. All we need is a series of holes in the ground, something we’re already amply supplied with. Which is what causes the puzzlement over the current shouting of course. Why is it that people don’t understand this?

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  1. “Waste management problem” is 100% correct. A few minutes ago I was watching a news report about the “plastic waste scourge” in third-world countries and I was thinking: how are their bin-men so crap that the rubbish fills river-beds, etc? And then the commentary continued saying something along the lines of: it’s a major problem as there’s no waste collection system?

    yer wot?!?!?!? They’ve not even got to the stage of medieval England in waste management? Nobody comes around and takes the stuff you’ve put in a bin behind the outhouse? No wonder waste just piles up everywhere, people just drop it everywhere. So you end up with India employing expensive soldiers cleaning rivers instead of employing cheap bin-men. And where is the private enterprise doing it for free for the value of what they collect, a la medevial England? Most waste is a high energy store, plastics particularly.

  2. I’m not in favour of burying anything that is flammable at a reasonable temperature. Sure it requires incinerators to be available nationwide, but far better than just dumping shit in holes and essentially kicking the can down the road for future generations.

    Sure, there would still have to be some solution, probably landfill for stuff that cannot be incinerated and cannot be economically reclaimed or recycled, but my preference would be to keep this to an absolute minimum.

    Not sure how this is best managed though, but I’m pretty sure that idiotic policies on bin collections, council Nazis and draconian fines for leaving the bin lid ajar aren’t the way forward.

  3. ‘One of the current passing fashions that mystifies is this demonisation of plastics.‘

    No great mystery really, it is a large-scale… The oceans! Marine life! Yikes!… Manmade global doom that can occupy the usual crowd now that nobody can take Manmade Global Warming seriously any longer since it has not turned up as promised. The Fracking War is lost, and everyone’s building coal fired power stations, even the Germans! What’s a poor Ecoloon to do?

    Demonising fossil fuels is soooo passée darling, the they need to frame something else and it is plastic’s turn, I mean look how well the plastic bag hysteria worked.

  4. This is neither a problem with plastics nor with waste management, though there are problems to solve in both areas. This is a problem in coming to grips with our sudden new ability to detect parts per quadrillion, when our only tools are a political system that rewards rhetoric of zero-risk, zero-tolerance, and absolute purity. That we can detect an impurity does not mean we must screech to a halt and solve it.

    John Galt: It isn’t “kicking the can down the road for future generations” when it isn’t a can. Plastic doesn’t burn, once plowed over with dirt and denied access to air. Yes, it is always possible that future generations will elect to dig up the rubbish, which is a blemish on the pristine Earth mother goddess. As at US “Superfund” sites, where the current standard is that the dirt becomes clean enough to be edible every other day.