The War on Plastic: Have we got it all wrong?

Written by Ivan Edwards

 

According to BuzzFeed, the coolest new subscription box in August 2018 was the greenUP box. For $42.95 a month – it’s only available in America at the moment – you can enjoy some “plastic rehab” with “cotton mesh produce bags, bamboo travel utensils, stainless steel lunch boxes, and more”, because “your plastic free life should be as beautiful as you are”.

The war on plastic has become an international obsession. In this country the charge on single-use plastic bags introduced in 2015 kicked things off whilst David Attenborough’s 2017 series Blue Planet II intensified individual and corporate efforts to reduce plastic, with an unprecedented social impact for any TV show. A new and valuable market has sprung up for alternatives to plastic – such as coffee cups, toothbrushes, containers and bags – as people dig in to do their bit for the environment.

 

“But what if all the efforts to eliminate plastic weren’t helping the environment at all?”

 

But what if all the efforts to eliminate plastic weren’t helping the environment at all? Plastic waste, for all the time and energy devoted to cutting it out of our lives, makes a negligible contribution to global warming. While we do our best to protect wildlife from straws and plastic bags, our planet itself is dying. Extreme weather events are already on the increase due to climate change; devastating communities and food supplies. The worst effects of global warming, irreversible changes in the Earth’s climate and ecosystems, will be the ones scientists can’t predict today.

Plastic sent to landfill doesn’t contribute to carbon emissions as it doesn’t break down, although 40% of waste produced by UK households is incinerated. Of course, the manufacture of plastic uses energy. But compare resource consumption of plastic manufacturing compared to other materials, and the marketing of some products as ‘environmentally friendly’ alternatives seems to be madness at best, and deception at worst. Cotton used for tote bags requires huge amounts of land, water and fertilisers to grow, so much so that government studies have consistently found that reusable plastic bags are the most environmentally-friendly option.

Steel is produced at temperatures of 1500˚C, with 74% of it produced using energy from coal. That’s after you’ve mined the iron ore to make the steel. What do the makers of the greenUP box think they’re doing, sending out steel lunchboxes to people who didn’t even ask for them, in the name of environmental consciousness? A spokesperson for the greenUP box told the Falmouth Anchor: “When it comes to the environment, we are left with very few good options and nothing is perfect. Right now, plastic as a material that will never biodegrade is an enormous problem causing untold damage, specifically in the oceans. So a decision has to be made and costs weighed.”

But these examples are everywhere. Our very own campus shop has started selling cans of water, an eco-alternative to bottles. There is no consensus over whether cans or plastic bottles have the lowest impact on the environment over their life cycle. Like bottles, the water is transported around the country in the backs of lorries, and you can only use them once before throwing them in the bin. They cost more though – £1.15 from Tesco for 500ml – presumably a premium charged to well-intentioned, environmentally-conscious customers.

 

“Our very own campus shop has started selling cans of water, an eco-alternative to bottles.”

 

Do consumers care about carbon emissions anymore? Morrisons doesn’t think so, replacing plastic bags in the fruit and veg aisle with paper bags, despite being warned by the Environment Agency that the latter had a greater impact on global warming due to the manufacturing process, and the fact they make food go off quicker.

Their spokesperson said, “We have listened to customers and they are telling us that the overuse of plastic is the most important environmental issue for us to deal with.”

It seems as people devote more time and effort to one environmental cause, others fall by the wayside. Easily shareable images of birds, turtles and dolphins suffocated by plastic waste trigger an emotional response that is not easy to replicate for the slow, silent, but ultimately catastrophic effects of resource overuse and climate change. Big business has latched on to the trend, with solutions that don’t tackle the root problem of overconsumption.

 

“…when the obsession with plastic overtakes or becomes wrongly conflated with the urgent need to cut carbon emissions, the planet will be the biggest loser.”

 

Of course plastic waste is damaging to the environment, especially when it ends up in the ocean. Taking steps like filling your own bottle from the tap, carrying a reusable coffee cup, or saying no to a straw, are good, easy ways of tackling the problem as an individual. For every product we buy, there are environmental factors to consider. But when the obsession with plastic overtakes or becomes wrongly conflated with the urgent need to cut carbon emissions, the planet will be the biggest loser.

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