Plastic: our beloved scapegoat

Plastic: our beloved scapegoat

The phrase ‘single use plastics’ summons image of soaring landfill piles, oceans of floating debris and rubbish-strewn city scapes. While serving a valuable purpose in areas such as the medical and scientific fields, single use plastics are undoubtedly a dastardly contributor to our planet’s ills. Few have attained a poorer public image than good old plastic, but have we thrown out the baby with the bath water by painting all plastic with the same, ‘It’s the devil incarnate!’ brush?

As I’ve touched on in a number of my previous posts, I’m a big proponent of approaching the big issues we face as humans, such as our environmental crisis, with an open and curious mind. This requires the unpacking and fresh analysis of our basic assumptions about what constitutes ‘sustainability’. So the question we are tasked to explore (with an open mind!) is: are there contexts in which plastic is the more appropriate and in fact, more mindful choice? 

To answer this question, we must school ourselves in something termed ‘A life Cycle Analysis’. A Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a “cradle to grave” examination of a product. It takes into account the entire effects of a product on the environment. This analysis tends to consider the energy, materials, water requirements, the amount of solid waste generated and pollution that is emitted to the surrounding air and water. An LCA includes the effects of a product on the environment while in use as well as when the product is out of action. 

As a result of the demonization of all plastic, we tend to think along the lines of “natural material such as paper: good, synthetic material such as plastic: bad”. Using the LCA mode of enquiry, we see that assumption has no factual basis. 

To illustrate this point, let us look to the age old plastic vs organic cotton tote bag quandary. Naturally the tote bag which is made from natural materials and can be reused is the more environmentally sound choice, right? According to the data, wrong. When greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, water and ecosystem impacts are taken into account, you would have to get 20 000 uses out of the tote bag in order for it to win the ‘least environmental impact’ award. Bottom line? There are no simple rules for what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ materials. Materials have varying impacts across different ecological metrics. The inconvenient yet empowering truth is, we must look at things in a great deal more detail in order to determine the most planet-friendly choice.

Just to close the loop, paper bags tend to have a very short lifecycle as they break easily with heavy items, are heavy to transport and often use unrenewable sources for materials. 

Sustainable use of polymeric materials (plastic) is not only possible but vital.  Alternatives to petrochemical plastics should, therefore, constitute a key area of exploration. While most plastics are fossil fuel-based synthetic polymers, polymers also occur in nature: in plants, animals and microorganisms through biochemical reactions. Hemp plastic is one such promising planet-based alternative, alongside coconut and flax. Producing plastic from hemp comes with a lot of benefits; hemp actively cleans our soil, prevents erosion and improves biodiversity. 

There are no silver bullets however, and even plastic that’s deliberately designed to be biodegradable can still be a source of pollution. Very little biodegrades in landfill, and hemp microplastics could still cause problems when introduced to the oceans. Biodegradable plastics need to be sent to commercial composting facilities, which means we need to improve our waste management systems to ensure materials that can biodegrade end up in those facilities. Hemp is also quite water and labor intensive, but since it’s only been legal to grow for a few years, there’s still a lot of room to improve the technology and infrastructure for growing and processing hemp into plastic.  

I hope this post has inspired you to dig a little deeper on the ‘what constitutes a sustainable material?’ question. We all have a painful wound in our hearts for what we as a humanity have perpetrated against our beautiful earth, and this causes us to want to find someone or something to blame. Plastic represents a single, easily definable and visible enemy that can bear the brunt of our pain. We now arrive at the time where the need to find an enemy that must be transcended, as we recognize the counter productiveness and destructiveness of the old way. Let us boldly accept our mission to zoom out on the problem of waste, and consider the impact of a product’s entire life cycle.