How to solve the problem? - Used under Creative Commons License

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 / www.shutterstock.com
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 / www.shutterstock.com
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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Esteban DeGolf
Member

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.

Spike
Member

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.

Southerner
Member

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.

Tim Newman
Member
Tim Newman

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”… Read more »

Spike
Member

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.

bloke in spain
Member
bloke in spain

Gonna be fun when that gets loose in the wild & starts munching on water gas & sewage pipes & chewing on the insulation on electric cables.

Spike
Member

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.

JerryC
Member
JerryC

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.