How to solve the problem?

This was originally published at The Conversation.

You benefit from plastic from the moment you get up and use your toothbrush or kettle. Plastic is embedded in agriculture – and it keeps you alive if you end up in hospital. Even some of our money is made from it. Yet I can’t watch the news without being bombarded by the evils of plastic. As a polymer scientist, it feels like my life’s work is dismissed as immoral by even my hero Sir David Attenborough, simply because I deal with plastics.

But plastic itself is inanimate and cannot be evil – what’s morally wrong is what humans do with it.

But some plastic packaging does have benefits – even for the environment. Some packaging, for instance, prevents enough food waste (and therefore deforestation, fertiliser use or vehicle emissions) to balance out the inevitable litter. So how can you tell what is and isn’t worth it?

One reason this is so hard to figure out is down to the nature of the material itself. Different kinds of plastic have to be separated for recycling because they contain tiny building blocks that don’t mix at the molecular level. For instance, even many chemists don’t realise that polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) don’t mix, though they are the two of the most common forms of plastic and both have the same empirical formula of n(CH2). That’s why separating plastics at the recycling centre is so important.

No time to peel your fruit and vegetables? Ayrat A /
A sports drink, for instance, can have three different and incompatible types of plastic in the bottle, the shrink-wrapped film, and the lid. All three components can be individually recycled but they are rarely separated other than by shredding.

Or look at black plastic trays. Their only function is to amplify the colour of a product, yet they also prevent recycling as sorting machines cannot detect black pigment.

In many cases, the packaging does have a genuine function and prevents waste by, for example, sealing in moisture or gas. But this can also mean certain thin films of plastic become impossible or prohibitively expensive to separate.

Packaged fruit and vegetables are egregious examples of excess plastic because they already come in a protective skin. Bananas already come in a perfectly designed wrapper – individuals can be snapped off a from a bigger pack, the skin splits length ways to expose the product, and it is truly biodegradable. Prepacked orange segments, meanwhile, last about four days whereas a whole orange can last months. Compare the environmental lifetime of orange peel (months) and polyethylene (effectively eternity) – all for the convenience of not peeling an orange. Such packaging serves little practical purpose, yet only a minority of supermarket fresh fruit and veg is offered “loose”.

Consumers are waking up to some of the worst excesses – see the recent furore over an M&S cauliflower steak that was pulled after complaints. But none of this is simple. Given that prepacked fruit and vegatables enable some disabled people to access fresh food, one person’s lazy and profligate is another’s lifesaver.

Durable plastic can be useful
So what can be done to reduce single-use plastic? A society that valued the environment over marketing could make evidence-based choices. On a larger scale, this involves policies such as the UK’s 5p carrier bag charge, which has driven an 80% reduction in single-use bags.

But personal actions matter, too. Take the choices involved in a simple packed lunch of a falafel wrap, prepared at home. For the wrap, many advocate reusing aluminium foil rather than clingfilm. But foil has to be reused nearly 200 times to release less greeenhouse gases than clingfilm – 5g of aluminium versus 0.2g of film at six times more embedded energy and nine times more GHG per gram.

Compare this to a reusable plastic sealed bag made from 14g of the same material as the clingfilm. This only needs to be used 70 times to get ahead (on GHG emmisions) of using new clingfilm every time, while there is no daily clingfilm or weekly foil going to landfill.

Cuckmere Valley UK, 2018. Sixpixx /
Or consider bottled water. The logical approach here is to reuse thicker bottles 100 times or more, but this may require a deposit scheme, collection and return, wash and refill – all of which costs. Thin single-use bottles are the lowest price, whereas refilling and reusing has the lowest environmental burden. Companies’ balance sheets and our pockets lead us to single-use plastics in the sea.

Single-use plastic is a complex issue – in some cases it is very useful, in others just the opposite. But consumers can make conscious choices, businesses can act responsibly and governments can enforce good policy to rid ourselves of pollution for profit.

We here at The Continental Telegraph would and do insist that there’s an easy solution to this. For we’re talking about externalities here. The effects upon third parties of a transaction. The answer being a tax of that social cost upon he action. And that’s it, we’re done. Just as a carbon tax is the solution to climate change.

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  1. Just be aware that those who lobby against the evils of plastic will try to set the tax very, very high. As with religious zealots of all stripes, they want to force people to behave as they see fit more than they are worried about the environment.

  2. Even in this essay, the means (enabling recycling, and changing our lives to fit the limitations of current sorting machinery) have overpowered the ends (human convenience, or whatever other end the purchaser desires). And the essay’s conclusion, essentially a Bottle Bill, is a ready-made bureaucracy fit to argue that the continuing existence of roadside litter argues for a higher deposit charge to fund themselves.

    Picking a single, society-wide set of values and inducing behavior through taxation is only slightly better than picking a single, society-wide set of values and inducing behavior through threat of imprisonment.

  3. Dear Tim, one of your more endearing characteristics is your naïve faith that a carbon tax can somehow “solve” climate change. Another is your reluctance to provide any evidence for this remarkable claim, and a third is your steadfast refusal to enter into discussions on the matter. It does my heart good to know that there are still those who rank faith above reason and logic.

    • You miss entirely the point that I actually make.

      If (and note the *if*) the basic concern is correct, that we’ve an externality which is causing problems, then the answer, the solution, really is to incorporate the cost of the externality into prices. This means that we get the *right amount* of the action taking place. Only that which produces more value than the harm to third parties continues to happen. That’s the stuff we want to continue to happen, humans are collectively richer. What stops is the parts of the action which produce less value than the harm they cause. That’s also what we want to happen. Causing more harm than good is known as making humans poorer.

      Note that there’s no claim at all that this cures climate change. Or any other such externality. However, the claim is that it produces the optimal amount of whatever it is the externality causes. And in economic that is the solution to the problem.

      A carbon tax doesn’t stop the planet from warming, nor does it cause it. It does, however, give us the *right amount* of warming. Thus it’s the solution to climate change, isn’t it?

      • For God’s sake! amid climate change caused by the Milankovich cycles (the wobbles in Earth’s orbit) and the lack of a control Earth without humans to determine exactly what is anthropomorphic, amid evidence that warming will lead to greater human happiness and greater harvests: Government is now able to measure exactly the *right amount* of warming???

        How did we come to believe that, in this one case, government will do precise measurement, immune from lobbying both from industry and from gadflies who want to wreck industry more than improve the planet? Given that the studies we are relying on currently cannot explain the last decade’s temperature plateau, nor next week’s weather?

        How did we come to believe that, *if* government could state such a goal in a single, dissent-free voice, that the resulting tax would be in a form that even furthered that goal?

        How did we come to ignore the damaging and occasionally counterproductive ways in which government pursues all its other goals? What if government gives the planet Earth “help” comparable at all to all it has done to “help” the poor?!

      • This all, no doubt, good economics, Tim. But in the world we’ve got, there’s a lot more going on than economics. You give government a reason to tax & government will tax. And it won’t just tax to the level of the cost of the externality. It’ll tax to the limit it reckons it can get away with.
        You’ve said yourself with fuel taxes. The level of taxation more than covers a putative carbon tax. Want to take a bet government won’t hike fuel taxes again in the near future? And use “climate change” as a justification?

      • I wonder if the logic of this also means that sequestering Carbon atoms should get a subsidy – or does the logic dictate that the tax runs only in one direction. Admittedly it’s going to be quite a low tax anyway, but should people who plant trees or rip up their patios to be replaced with gardens get a hand-out.

      • There you go again with the ‘if the other side was right…’ They are not right. The whole plastic fooforaw is not a problem in the UK or indeed Europe. It is not my fault, I carry no guilt and I am not therefore required to be part of a solution to a non-problem. The only thing to do is to tell’em to prove it or to stick it where the sun shineth not.

  4. Packaged fruit and vegetables are egregious examples of excess plastic because they already come in a protective skin.

    If you’d spoken to someone who’s worked on an industrial vegetable farm including time in the packing house, you’d know this isn’t true: the packaging is necessary for the shipment, stacking, and storage. Try packing 1,000 cauliflowers in crates in an articulated lorry without wrapping them in cellophane. Believe it or not, the people involved in logistics of fruit and vegetable have worked out what works and what doesn’t, and they’re not exactly in the business of wasting money by using “unnecessary” packaging.

  5. On the very minor point of the (current) inability to process waste polyethylene and polypropylene together, perhaps the discovery of that bacterium in a Japanese landfill that secretes an enzyme that breaks down plastic, subsequently improved in the lab, will lead to a process that will break down all hydrocarbons into reusable small molecules.

    Further work in that direction beats the pants off a new tax, which will make everyone feel good about funding the Parasite Sector, and will never ever be repealed, notably, even if the assumptions on which it is based are found to be incorrect.

      • There are plenty of chemicals that are solvents for PVC pipe, and we use one of them to soften it up just before fitting a joint. The bacteria might not like whatever the chlorine turns into. Also, bacteria, having consumed their entire ecosystem, have to travel to their next meal, whereas in the landfill, dinner has been brought to them. So I am not worrying about the consumption of entire water-and-sewer districts.

  6. The idea that there’s some kind of plastic waste crisis in the UK that has to be acted on NOW strikes me as absurd. Plastic does break down in the environment and the vast, vast majority of it ends up in landfill anyway. People shouldn’t litter, but plastic straws aren’t a threat to the planet. Of course Tim is always ready to propose a Pigouvian tax solution to whatever non-problem the luvvies are chattering about, so that’s nothing new.