Why plastic is (often) not a problem

2018 seems to be the year against plastic. Social medias are full of videos from different organisations raising awareness against the dire consequences of our disposable plastic consumption. Oceans are the particular focus on most of these campaigns as the threat of plastic is becoming more known and new studies keep on showing every few months that plastic dumped in the oceans comes back to us in many creative ways, in our food most notably. Here from Greenpeace Australia, if you don’t like to read that much, here is a documentary for you… And since we are at it, check this out about the plastic continent.

It is also very trendy in the zero-waste/eco-conscious community to rain down hell on plastic, to worship the vintage glass jar, to hail the bamboo disposable fork. This, however won’t save the planet. It might even destroy it faster than plastic.

Beware of false friends

Glass is made mainly of sand, also used quite widely to make concrete. We are already over-extracting sand from the environment and a radical increase in the global demand (as a large shift to glass jar would require) would only further increase the destruction of marine life, marine coastlines and everywhere else we get our sand from. Plus, on a very practical matter, have you ever held a jar in your hand? These bad boys are both very fragile and extremely heavy. The amount of extra energy necessary to transport such jars around the globe would probably increase their carbon footprint very significantly. I am therefore pretty sure glass jars have a much higher carbon footprint than plastic containers all the while being less practical.

Alternatives to Styrofoam cups, plastic plates and cutlery have been popping up everywhere in the Western world. Nowadays, you are not a respectable, hipster coffee shop or “healthy” fast-food joint if your paper napkins are not brown, your cutlery made of wood or bamboo and your plates of cardboard (hello Exqi and the likes!). The thing is though, wood is not recycled and neither is paper and cardboard that has been covered in oil and food stains. So while it might not become a microparticle that will kill birds or come back in our stomach when we eat fish, it still takes up to several months to biodegrade, requires a lot of work to be moved around to where it can do just that and stays very much a garbage that will pile up somewhere and cause problems.

Oh, yeah, here is also a fun fact. It is better to give a plastic bag to people showing up at your store or conference than a trending tote bag. Tote bags have a much higher carbon footprint and the point is that you shouldn’t need or get two billions of them, a couple are enough. So while it makes you feel good, it does more harm than good. So, really, ditch it and find a better way to protect the environment.

Changing our habits around waste

The reusable bag frenzy and why it is backfiring is actually the perfect example of what the problem really is. It does not matter what material we use as long as we are still in the habit of throwing it after one use. Single-use items create enormous amount of problems and waste, both in terms of trash and money. We spend billions producing, distributing, cleaning, moving, sorting and storing our trash every year. I mean, we used to ship part of it to China until this year… For real?

If we suddenly banned plastic cutlery and simply replaced all of it with wooden alternatives, what do we think would be left of our forest? How do you expect nature could meet that enormous demand? Instead of an ocean full of plastic, we would have a world without trees. Does that seem better to you?

Going back to the tote bags/reusable bags,  if we keep getting 10-20 or more every year, we are actually having a worse carbon footprint than our former habit of plastic bags. If people always forget to bring the bag they bought the last time to do their shopping, if they end up buying new ones every time, things are worse off than they were.

This is why it is our single-use habit that needs to change in order to meaningfully impact our environment in a positive way. As long as we focus our energy in pointing fingers to easy targets, we won’t be able to evolve into a more sustainable society. Until we gain the awareness to ask ourselves the right questions about our habit of polluting and creating waste, we won’t really make a difference. If we cannot forgo some of our comfortable but perilous habits, like not planning before shopping, we can try to get rid of any particular material and replace it with a more neutral one, it will still be a problem to deal with.

Take (a small) action now!

So how about this? How about you prepare a shopping bag, one full of plastic, tote or whatever bags and containers you might need when you shop. Always put it back together when you’re done sorting your shopping at home, always take it with you when you go shopping. Hang it by the frontdoor if you think you’ll forget about it.

How about you make a lunch box, with some cutlery from your kitchen, a washable napkin, a cup so that when going to eat in your favorite place, you don’t have to repeatedly use single-use items?

There are another one million things you can anticipate and do to starve off your single-use item addiction and honestly, are the two I just mentioned really a bother?