In Defence of Plastic
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Plastic is not the problem. The problem is how we dispose of plastic – or rather don’t – when it has ceased to be useful.
Plastic isn’t a singular entity. There’s no chemical symbol for plastic; if there were, I might suggest that the letters Pl (that’s a lower-case ‘L’ by the way), followed by the humble exclamation mark, would be ideal.
Plastic. Pl! See what I mean? Plastic is exciting. Plastic is great stuff. Plastic is all around us; our modern western lifestyles simply wouldn’t be possible without it.
And humanity is somewhat addicted to it. In 2018, world plastic production topped 400 million tonnes.
Without moving from my chair, the arms of which are plastic, I can find no end of plastic stuff within easy sight and reach.
My computer is largely made from it. The keyboard and mouse are fabricated from plastic. In a plastic container not two feet from me are a number of plastic pens, and a pair of scissors with plastic handles. In the drawer of the desk is a plastic dispenser holding a roll of sticky tape – plastic sticky tape. Oh, and a plastic stapler.
My wife has some sort of cocoa-butter body lotion type stuff in a plastic pot on the dressing table. The collapsible steps leading up to the loft are plastic. So are the blades, and a good deal of the rest of the assembly, of the fan blowing cool air – well actually, rearranging ambient air – across the desk in front of me. The printer off to the side is plastic. So are the toner cartridges contained within it. Our dressing gowns hang, romantically side-by-side, on the wardrobe door, suspended from stick-on plastic hooks.
My glasses, without which I can no longer focus on anything as close as a laptop screen, aren’t glass. They’re some sort of acrylic. So are the little nobby bits that go on the bridge of my nose. The attractive and classy wood-grain-like veneer of the IKEA desk at which I’m sitting is plastic. The feet on the ironing board. The iron itself.
The extension cord supplying power to the computer is sheathed in PVC, as is the wall socket into which it is plugged.
Downstairs, much of the TV is plastic. So is the interior of the fridge. So is the jug, the control panel on the microwave, the buttons on the dishwasher, the food processor, the Bluetooth speaker thingy, the charging stand for the Bluetooth speaker thingy, and the power cords for all of them.
My toolbox is plastic. So are the handles on the screwdrivers and pliers within. The cordless drill is largely plastic, and the box it packs neatly away in (yeah right) is entirely plastic. The battery, the charger – likewise plastic. I used it only yesterday to drill a hole in the gib, into which I then inserted a screw-fixing wall plug – made from plastic.
In the bathroom, my toothbrush is plastic. So is my deodorant stick and hair gel tube. (Yes, I use hair gel. Now you know.)
Shampoo bottles, cotton bud stalks, various pottles and tubes of the wife’s mysterious bathroom potions, my beard trimmer, the mirror surround; all of them plastic.
Back in the kitchen, next to the fridge, sits a plastic rubbish bin. Inside it is a plastic rubbish bag. In the bag is quite a lot of plastic rubbish, much of which is waste packaging material that used to contain foodstuffs – lots of it, perhaps paradoxically, organic, free-range, and otherwise morally and spiritually high-brow and pure.
And here, I believe, is where we come to the nub of the matter.
Plastic is one of mankind’s greatest ever inventions. It surrounds us, it suffuses our lives. Plastic is versatile, hard-wearing, sterile, malleable, cheap, strong, long-lasting, largely chemically inert. It doesn’t rust or rot or chip or crack or get soggy or become infested with borer. It preserves food, contains liquids and chemicals, keeps stuff dry, keeps rodents out, holds everything from medicines, to milk, to meat, to you name it.
Plastic is used in everything from toys to tools, from appliances to furniture to motor vehicles, from medical equipment to modern weapon systems, from electronics to hydroponics.
Alternative energy would not be possible without plastic. Wind turbine blades are made from plastic. So are solar panels.
But plastic has become indecorous of late. All around the world, plastic is being demonized; more often than not, incidentally, by people who use all manner of plastic items in the making of their various points. Plastic computers used to generate foretellings of doom, to be promulgated to other plastic computers and devices, via the plastic-dependent Internet (perhaps unbeknownst to some objectors, everything from routers to fibre-optic cable to the insulation on copper wires, is made from plastic). Plastic highlighter pens used to make protest signs decrying plastic, on plastic sheet held up by plastic poles and attached with plastic sticky tape. Irony appears lost on these folk.
I feel virtuous today, because I bought recycled dunny paper at the supermarket. Well, actually, dunny paper made from recycled paper, whatever that truly means. However, out of respect for my virtuousness, I’m going to ignore the fact that it came packaged in plastic. All dunny paper does. Have you noticed that? Would you buy it if it didn’t? Be honest, you probably wouldn’t – plastic keeps things clean and sterile. We trust plastic and the stuff wrapped up in it, and we probably wouldn’t trust things as much if they weren’t protected by plastic.
On that note, if we stop packaging food in plastic, we can look forward to a great deal more spoilage, and a great increase in the use of preservatives. I don’t know why telegraph cucumbers have to be shrink wrapped, but have a look round the grocery aisle next time you go shopping – there’s more plastic in there than you could point a plastic thing at.
Oh, and that cardboard tetra pack carton you just bought your milk in, thinking it was a more environmentally sensitive choice than a plastic bottle? Well I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but it’s a very long time since that carton was liquid-proofed with wax. Polyethylene has been the liner of choice for cardboard drinks containers for about thirty years now. Yes, I’m afraid that your cardboard milk bottle is lined with plastic. So is that aluminium coke can, by the way.
But I digress.
One of the more prominent and topical campaigns has been that opposing the so-called ‘single-use’ plastic bag. It has been highly successful! By that I mean that you don’t now get given your rubbish bags free with your grocery shopping – instead, you have to buy them, from the same supermarket that used to give them away.
So the anti-shopping bag campaign came about because people became aware that the ocean is being filled up with waste plastic. This is not a good thing, and their outrage and objection is fully righteous and justified. The turtle with the plastic straw up its nose was a timely and poignant reminder as to the reckless abandon with which humankind seems perfectly prepared to pollute and poison the very earth that gives us succour.
But actually; the ban on ‘single-use’ plastic bags has not, can not, and will not, achieve a damned thing – apart from greater profits for the aforementioned supermarkets. Not unless and until we start doing things differently where our rubbish is concerned.
By now we all know that there is a vast floating raft of plastic about the size of Wales up in the middle of the North Pacific. And we also know that 90% of it comes from ten rivers, eight of them in Asia, and two in Africa, apparently. How African river waste ends up in the Pacific I don’t know, but The Experts are fairly confident about this.
This is not something that we in the Enlightened West can just wash our hands of. This isn’t just the unevolved fuzzie-wuzzies being irresponsible; it’s at least as much our fault as theirs, and quite probably more so.
My reason for saying this is two-fold. For some years now, we in the West have been outsourcing our recycling to Third World countries. Many years ago, everything we were done with simply went to the local tip. Recycling of a sort happened there; few and far between were the occasions when I didn’t come back from the dump with at least as much stuff as I had taken there. Rats and seagulls took care of a fair proportion of dumped material, and every few months the Council would send in a man in a tractor to rearrange the deposited matter. Anything combustible went in the incinerator at home, before you even loaded up for the dump. ‘Incinerator’ was a flash word for ‘44-gallon drum’ in the old days. When the drum was more rust and holes than drum, it went to the tip as well. Life was good.
But then it began to dawn on us that just chucking stuff in a heap, in a fenced-off paddock, and periodically burying it, might not be the best way to be disposing of things we didn’t want anymore. Also, it clearly occurred to someone in authority that there was money to be made from muck. So landfills and recycling were invented. Landfills were the new name for dumps. They came with good eco-credentials, including glossy brochures that highlighted their geo-tech liners, and the downstream water tests that they had had done independently (yes, yes, of course), and so on. A landfill was still essentially a hole in the ground that you threw rubbish in and periodically buried, but it was an environmentally friendly hole in the ground. Oh, and it came with an entry fee as well.
Recycling was made popular through social engineering educational initiatives in Primary schools, and films made in California, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking recycling, I genuinely believe in it. But in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m also a bit of a cynic.
However, recycling proved to be expensive. At least, recycling properly proved to be more expensive than first thought, and not sufficiently profitable for those firms that had invested in it – as far as what could plausibly be charged for the service was concerned.
So it came to pass that certain countries offered to take the West’s crap, in exchange for a fee. This was kind of a perfect solution. We got rid of our rubbish, they got some coin, the waste industry still made a profit, nothing was in our back yard, and life was back to being good.
However, Johnny Foreigner quickly discovered that it was cheaper and easier to just chuck our garbage in the river along with their own, than it was to recycle it properly – and so that’s what happened. And out to sea it went, and in the North Pacific it congregated.
The second reason is also concerned with the cost of getting rid of unpleasant stuff, but this is connected to the manufacturing of it, rather than the disposal. For even longer than we have been using the Third World as a rubbish dump, We The West have been using them as a place to make stuff that we have discovered it is too dangerous and dirty for us to continue doing it ourselves.
Happily for us, some countries still have an utter disregard for the environment that would make even the most uncaring of Western industrialists blush. Decades ago, we moved our factories to these countries, where they carry on doing things that would see people locked up, if they were still happening in Waddington, or Wisconsin, or Wellington, or Winnipeg, or West Wyalong.
And we happily bought the stuff they were making, because it was cheap, because they didn’t pay their people very well (if at all) and because they weren’t spending lots of money on being environmentally careful; and we didn’t care about any of that, because it was cheap. Like us.
But then…..China, and Vietnam, and Malaysia, and the Philippines, decided that they didn’t want the West’s garbage anymore. So here we are. The ocean is full of plastic, and most of it, one way or another, is our fault.
So what do we do?
Fortunately there are a couple of things we can do. Plastic can be made to be biodegradable. One of the best ways of achieving this is to make it out of biological material rather than petrochemicals. And yes, I do have a vested interest in saying so; hemp is one very good source of feedstock material from which plastics can be made. However, that isn’t really the drum I’m beating at this point.
Part of the beauty of plastic, and the most part of its utility and value to us, is that it doesn’t break down. Plastic stuff lasts. Like cockroaches, and a well-known brand of hamburgers, and Mercedes diesel engines, plastic will survive the apocalypse.
But not all our plastic needs to last forever. The abovementioned ‘single use’ shopping bags are a perfect example. Buried in the landfill, neatly tied and filled with our daily rubbish, these little gems will be an unending source of information about our society, for the archaeologists of the future.
So we can switch some of our production of plastic, from the everlasting petrochemical stuff, to the last-as-long-as-you-want-it-to-and-then-compost-it stuff. I personally don’t want the interior of my car, or the vital signs monitoring machine at the hospital, to biodegrade at all, thank you very much. And neither do I think life would be improved if such items were made from wood or ceramics.
But I have a concern where plants are cultivated in order to provide feedstock for stuff that could much more easily continue to be made from oil. My concern is this; just like biofuels, every acre of land converted to the growing of a crop intended for the manufacture of environmentally friendly plastic, is an acre that can’t be used for growing food – in a world that is already struggling to feed its rapidly multiplying billions.
Here is where hemp comes to the fore again – and again, I say by way of disclaimer that although I do have a vested interest in pushing it, this isn’t really the drum I’m beating right now.
Hemp is already a food crop. Once the seeds and oil have been harvested, there’s plenty of cellulose and fibre left, from which can be made a myriad of other useful things – biodegradable plastics being one of them.
Pyrolisis, a high-temperature, low-oxygen form of incineration, can turn waste plastics into an inert substance so tough it can be used as a substrate for road building.
40-odd years ago a plan was suggested that would see Auckland’s rubbish trucked south to the then coal-fired Meremere Power Station, and used as fuel for making electricity, thereby killing two birds with one plastic stone. Being decades ahead of its time, the plan was naturally laughed out of town – but it was a valid idea then, and it remains a valid idea today.
In addition, a very helpful fungus has recently been discovered – one that eats plastic. What it excretes is as yet uncertain, but utilizing its services has to be better than doing nothing, or worse, carrying on the way we’re going.
These things are window dressing, however. The real solution lies somewhere else, in my humble opinion.
Fundamentally, it’s the fact that we still regard it as acceptable to simply bury our rubbish in holes in the ground, and leave it there as a ticking ecological time-bomb for our grandchildren to deal with.
Or, at least, most of us do.
The Germans, however, don’t. In the 1970s there were more than 50,000 landfills in Germany. Then in 2005 Germany imposed a ban on them, and began closing them down, instead moving to a regime based around incineration, composting, and full recycling. Today there are fewer than 300 landfills still operating in Germany, and by 2020 - next year – there will be none.
Personally I think this is a marvelous initiative, and one that the rest of the world should be following to the letter. A very brief and concise precis can be found here:
Plastic begins life as oil, and to oil it can return. We can make new things out of old plastic. Fuel. Road materials. New plastic, in some instances.
Glass, likewise, starts out as sand, and can also be remade, into new glass, into construction aggregate, and even back into sand, if we choose to so do. All metals are always recyclable, over and over and over. Paper and cardboard can be remade and unmade again any number of times, before finally being left to the tender attentions of the microbes in the composting plant.
There are a gazillion things that we can do, and should be doing, with our rubbish, other than just throwing it away in holes in the ground, and periodically covering it with dirt and geo-tech cloth liners.
There is no excuse for a plastic Wales to be floating around in the North Pacific, and no excuse for turtles having to contend with drinking straws up their nostrils, either. I’m old enough to be able to remember paper drinking straws – whatever happened to them? I guess plastic became cheaper.
I will end as I began, by singing the praises of plastic, and by saying once more that plastic is not the problem. The problem is our collective attitude when it comes to disposing of stuff. Just throwing it in the bin has never been acceptable; and I believe that we are, at long last, beginning to realise that.
We never needed to ban the plastic bag. What we needed to do all along, was ban the throwaway mentality that has allowed our wonderful, versatile, long-lasting, utilitarian plastic products, to end up in places that they should never have been.
Germany is the shining light here. We need to follow their example.