Maybe Plastics Aren’t All That Bad

By Kealan Pritchard, Year 12

In an era of “fake news”, where a false sense of progress is heavily influenced by emotion, it can be hard to find the facts. Lately, we have been bombarded with alleged truths, provided by environmentalists with the right intention, but the wrong information. We have been told that plastics are bad, plastics are not recyclable, plastics are unnecessary. But is that really true? 

Over recent years, huge awareness has been raised about the detrimental consequences of unmanaged and littered plastics – Blue Planet II, for example, caused concerns amongst British people over their damaging effects on marine biodiversity. Although this attention to plastics as of recent is justified, the perception that we are being given does not equal the reality. Plastic, itself, is not an evil material – how can it be, being inanimate? The real problem is what we do with all the plastic that we use. Littering, for instance, is the source of most of these problems – a social and cultural problem that is not the same as plastic waste, it is what leads to the distressing images of entangled whales that the media barrages us with. If we were to replace plastic with another material, would the same problems not still occur – with substitute materials, such as paper, potentially having far worse consequences if littered?

Something that has been ignored by anti-plastic campaigners is the importance of plastics to the existence of modern-day humanity. Plastics have revolutionised the way we live, solving many environmental and social problems whilst helping to lift millions out of poverty (they were originally introduced as an eco-friendly equivalent for ivory billiard balls). Plastics’ use in food packaging has immensely reduced malnutrition by giving fresh food a longer shelf life whilst maintaining its edibility and nutritious values; did you know that a plastic-wrapped cucumber actually lasts more than three times as long as an unwrapped one. Furthermore, plastics have revolutionised our piping and water systems, providing clean and safe water to billions, hence reducing disease.

Many people don’t know that plastics actually have a much lower carbon footprint than many of their equivalents. Being resource efficient, lightweight and durable, plastics are far more environmentally friendly, with respects to climate change, than paper for example. Made primarily from wood, the manufacture of paper often involves unsustainable deforestation that has a far worse, although more hidden, effect on the environment. Even after its manufacture – consuming 40% more energy in production and generating 80% less solid waste than plastics – paper is still environmentally damaging, as further greenhouse gases are emitted through its transport. Weighing almost ten times more than plastics, paper uses loads of fuel to transport (2,000 plastic bags only weigh 13kg, whilst the same number of paper bags weighs 128 kg).  

However, there is hope! Exciting modern technologies are finding new ways to recycle plastic and now, contrary to popular belief, almost all plastics are recyclable. One of these incredible inventions is the RT700 by Recycling Technologies’. This shipping-container-sized unit converts residual waste plastic that is currently buried, burnt or lost, back into oil for reuse – it can even recycle products widely considered non-recyclable such as crisp packets, toothpaste tubes and black plastics. These amazing machines can also enhance economic and humanitarian development – placed next to rivers, they can provide healthcare and education vouchers, paid for by the oil profits, in return for plastic that would otherwise be littered. This would significantly reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean, as well as changing the world’s perception of waste plastic from an unwanted pollutant to a valuable resource.

If we can change our approach to plastics, accepting their superior utility, whilst addressing the main issue that is littering, the problems we are seeing will, with the aid of our advancing technology, begin to self-regulate. However, we must not forget that the main problem, the problem that most of the attention needs to go towards, is climate change. After all, why save the whales from plastic only to let them die at the hands of climate change.