friend and foe blocks on see-saw

Fundamental misconceptions about plastics pollution in general, and single-use plastics, in particular, have become so engrained that consumers, politicians, and academics the world over rarely question them. The old saw — if a lie is told often enough, it is perceived as truth — is alive and well.

The irony is that the very substance that has revolutionized modern life on the planet has, by its very presence, become the poster child for environmental depredation (hat tip to CO2 for taking the lead).

There are changes in the wind, however, and very encouraging ones. More accurate testing methods combined with detailed studies, and more than adequate sample sizes, give us the tools to drill down and verify evidence that, until recently, has largely been missing.

As outlined below, there is every reason to be optimistic about where plastics technology is headed, and the data support its direction. Once-assumed truisms about plastics overrunning our cities and oceans are being debunked on a regular basis. Data, testing, and studies supporting the claim that the use of single-use plastics is scientifically sound are out there. Environmental activism, on the other hand, relies very little on science-based reasoning and cherry-picks pseudo-scientific talking points wrapped in emotion.

Remember the now-refuted photo of a forlorn polar bear floating on a tipsy piece of sea ice, evoking a warming Arctic, sea-level rise, and oh-so-much hand wringing? Yeah, that.

Bad behavior, bad results

Let’s look at an example from the United Kingdom. Eight billion polypropylene banknotes — and you thought the only plastic money was credit cards — are printed in various denominations annually. How many of those do you see drifting by on a windy day, washed up in the gutter, or littering the beach or playground?

On the other hand, plastic items that hold no value for us immediately after use are casually discarded on the street or flung from the car window. Where they often don’t seem to land is in the recycling container. A rather indelicate question drives the point home: Does your fork make you fat? Didn’t think so.

Just as the firearm does not kill on its own, the grocery bag, plastic straw, or sandwich clamshell befouling our planet aren’t responsible for pollution. A glance in the mirror reveals the culprit: Plastic is our friend, we are our foe.

Close the loop

Circularity is a rather new term that rolls easily off the tongue once you get the hang of it. Linguistic appeal aside, it is a hugely important concept that every consumer should become familiar with, as it will most likely determine the outcome of our future recycling strategies.

One of the problems when it comes to recycling is that most plastics are not designed with circularity in mind. Single-use design currently remains the most cost-effective method of production, and we’re making good progress in various steps of the recycling process, such as more sustainable polymer colorants, sorting efficiencies, and resin reconstitution. Even so, Magdalena Klotz, a doctoral researcher at ETH Zurich, concisely summarizes the core challenge of circularity, as she explains why recycled plastic is not quite up to the job of replacing virgin materials. She writes, “Wanting to keep plastics in circulation is currently en vogue; however, high collection rates are of little use unless recycled materials replace virgin materials to a much greater extent. To actually achieve . . . ecological goals, we must also sort the plastic waste we collect more precisely and design products — where possible — more uniformly to avoid mixing during recycling. This would pave the way for recyclate to increasingly replace primary plastics in the production process.” Clearly, improvements await.

Paper or plastic? No contest, from an LCA perspective

It’s everyone’s punching bag — take a five-minute drive, bike ride, or neighborhood walk today and one can’t miss the eye-catching gremlin of a plastic grocery bag snagged on a tree limb, splayed to a chain-link fence, or comically whirling mid-air like a Halloween hobgoblin.

Life-cycle assessments (LCA) and some basic online searches such as “LCA plastic bag” or similar keywords yield more than ample evidence in defense of single-use plastics, shopping bags specifically.

As plastics expert Chris DeArmitt relates in his excellent book, Plastics Paradox – Facts for a Brighter Future, blaming plastics for pollution is like driving your car into a tree and blaming the car. See his website plasticsparadox.com for more in-depth analysis of these and other topics.

DeArmitt addresses a host of long-held, erroneous beliefs with the following list:

  • The standard polyethylene bag is the greenest option if all bags are used once.
  • A reusable polypropylene bag is even greener when used several times.
  • Paper bags, even from recycled paper, are far worse than plastic bags, requiring more energy, water, and chemicals, and producing more CO2 and emissions than plastic bags.
  • Cotton bags are disastrous for the environment, and organic cotton is even worse.
  • Replacing plastic bags with other materials does not reduce oil consumption.
  • Every study shows plastic bags, even when used only once, are greener than any other material when utilized for similar tasks.
  • When factoring in costs, natural resources consumed, and overall emissions produced, the use of any material other than plastic is significantly more harmful to the environment.
  • People cause litter, so blaming materials (or forks) is unjust.

Strong statements? You bet. But they are the punch in the nose that’s needed. Uncompromising language is required to blast through the years of lies and deception foisted upon us by disingenuous ‘green’ groups and their donation-grubbing agendas. Any doubters should do their own research, then get on board. We’ll wait.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.