War on plastic: a load of rubbish?

Sunday 14 October, 16:0017:15, Garden RoomBusiness and society

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Getting rid of plastics has become a cause célèbre recently. From the Daily Mail to Sky News, several media outlets have launched campaigns about plastic waste. The BBC’s primetime magazine programme, The One Show, frequently features items on how we can all cut down. Inspired by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, which painted a vivid picture of how plastic pollution is damaging marine life, the UK government has vowed to ‘eliminate’ plastic waste – albeit not until 2042. The environment secretary, Michael Gove, has launched a consultation on introducing a deposit scheme for plastic bottles. The figures seem alarming: a study in 2015 suggested that eight million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year and warned that the figure could increase ten-fold over the next decade.

The ‘war on plastic’ is not confined to the UK. Bans, restrictions and taxes on using plastics have proliferated worldwide in recent years. But interest in dealing with plastic pollution is not merely a political or media concern. For many people, cutting down on plastics or helping with beach clear-ups is a practical way for them to ‘do their bit’ for the environment, while school projects use plastics, and recycling more generally, to inculcate a sense of global citizenship.

Yet it is by no means clear that reducing usage of plastic in developed countries will help that much. For example, there is considerable geographic variation in the entry of plastics into oceans and where they are concentrated, especially in coastal waters and where currents meet, as in the North Pacific Ocean. High volumes of plastics get into the oceans where there are poor waste disposal systems, especially in parts of Asia and Africa. Plastics enter the oceans directly or by being blown by wind into seas and rivers which flow into seas. An article in National Geographic earlier this year noted that most of the plastic waste in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ was actually discarded fishing gear and waste washed into the ocean from the Japanese tsunami of 2011.

Critics argue that cutting the use of plastic bags, bottles, straws and coffee cups would do little to save marine life, while replacing plastics with other materials – like glass, tin or new types of biodegradable plastic – might be costly and undermine hygiene and food preservation. As a spokesperson for Green Alliance, an environmental NGO, told BBC News: ‘We must ensure that whatever solutions we design don’t increase emissions, damage world ecosystems or result in more waste.’ Moreover, there are wider issues with how we dispose of plastics. Many people would argue that recycling is best, but since China’s ban on importing 24 kinds of solid recycling waste at the start of 2018, many countries that used to export large quantities of plastic waste for disposal in China face mounting problems with plastic waste.

Plastics are enormously useful and cheap to produce. No wonder they have become ubiquitous in modern life. Given that only a small proportion of the plastic in our oceans comes from wealthy consumers in the developed world, why does so much public debate concentrate on reducing consumer waste? Would cutting the use of plastics bring benefits or new problems? Is the ‘war on plastic’ really about protecting the environment or about being seen to be a good citizen? Is it time to rethink the role of plastics today.