When hearing about challenges related to littered plastics in the environment, it is understandable that the knee-jerk reaction is to ask why everything isn’t just made from other materials, or whether a ban on plastics production would force the industry to recycle more. But it’s a lot like when a child proposes that the solution to global warming is eliminating cars: it’s overly simplistic, fails to understand how the economy works, and reveals an incomplete understanding of a complicated issue. Recent reporting from FRONTLINE and NPR’s – “Plastics Wars” shares this disappointing misunderstanding, which is disconcerting from the media organizations that Americans rely on for accurate, unbiased reporting.
The simple fact is that by breathing and moving through the world, we as humans have environmental impacts. And choices about what to buy, use, or throw away can affect a variety of factors: water, carbon, time, convenience, preference. There is no perfect material for every application, situation, or person. It’s a complicated system of tradeoffs that are best decided with accurate information by the individuals most closely affected.
Proposing total production bans are so outlandish and impractical that they should be quickly dispensed with for a policy debate. How is a ban globally enforced? What does that mean for the trade of finished products? If this is a temporary moratorium, who is going to maintain the facilities so that they can be used later – or would environmental advocates prefer the industry completely rebuild from scratch?
Our opposition to bans is well documented, so we don’t need to rehash all of it here. But when evaluating the effects, these types of proposals often fail to consider what is the alternative to plastics and is it “better”? Studies by TruCost and Franklin & Associates show that alternatives to plastics have greater environmental impacts such as greater energy use, increased greenhouse gas emissions and more waste.
Often there is a counterintuitive effect because these bans increase plastics use, which is an inefficient use of resources. For example, plastics bags are recyclable and can also be reused. So when grocery bags are banned, consumers have to buy more bags for their trash or pets – and these are often thicker than the original ones.
Without overstating the obvious during the current health crisis we are facing, plastic products are especially useful in an emergency response. Add to that all the machines and the thousands of items needed to treat patients, and it is readily apparent that eliminating plastics is a huge risk.
According to the Flexible Packaging Sustainability Study, a PET bottle, which uses a blow mold process to form the bottle, using heat and pressurized air to form the bottle within a mold. This process results in GHG emissions significantly lower than the aluminum can.
According to a FAQ by Brueckner Group USA, making glass bottles uses 3.5x as much fossil fuels, emits more than 5x more greenhouse gas emissions and uses 17.5x more water.
Creating prohibitions on plastics just doesn’t make sense. Finding a solution to people’s wanton disregard for proper disposal of trash should be the goal. That, coupled with aggressive collection and recycling practices can be one of the keys to rectifying the situation. But the industry isn’t stopping there. We continue to innovate, looking for new markets to increase the pull for recycled content, as well as devising new methods to recycle the polymers chemically. To circle back to an earlier metaphor: we didn’t ban cars because of emissions, we created catalytic converters.
There are different aspects of recycling that were not thoroughly explored. These advancements to recycling include turning plastic polymers back into their original molecules so they can be processed and used again and again. These processes make it possible to recycle items that cannot be traditionally recycled via mechanical means. This can be done through purification, decomposition and conversion technologies.
FRONTLINE and NPR also asked whether the industry uses recycling to sell more plastic. Consumers want sustainable materials, and recyclable products are generally considered more sustainable. But consumers also want plastic products. No one is saying how much better a paper straw performs than a plastic one. So, PLASTICS is going to continue to unapologetically advocate for innovation, investments and education because it’s going to take a combination of all three to make a difference.
The bottom line is that so many plastic opponents see only as far as the ban. But it should be the first question when those proposals arise. If you accomplish what you say you want to accomplish when it comes to plastics, what happens afterward? You might not like the answer.