A ban on plastics may seem a step towards a cleaner, greener future but a group of academics from Heriot-Watt University say it could result in much greater environmental damage.
Some 40 academics covering multiple disciplines across the university including engineering, sciences, economics and social sciences, have formed a new network to take an impartial, expert look at the growing issues around plastic.
The debate has gained fresh impetus since the BBC's Blue Planet 2 series, which thrust the issue back into the public conscience and led to many calls for an absolute ban.
In many cases there is no credible alternative to using a plastic, so we need to move towards a 'circular economy' for plastics, rather than the largely 'make-use-dispose' model we currently adopt.
The academics want to capitalise on this momentum by contributing positively to these on-going discussions to help create a more sustainable model for plastic manufacturing and usage.
Although the academics are in support of the urgent need to prevent potentially harmful environmental effects of plastics, they say many of the current arguments surrounding a reduction or ban are often shortsighted and not based on facts.
Professor David Bucknall, Chair in Materials Chemistry from the University's Institute of Chemical Sciences, is concerned about pressure from various quarters calling for outright ban as there are no clear alternatives. Estimates show that replacement of plastics with currently available materials would lead to a doubling of global energy consumption and a tripling of greenhouse gas emissions (1). Separate analysis found the environmental cost of replacing plastic would be nearly four times greater.
Professor Bucknall explains: “Almost everything we touch or interact with on a daily basis is made of or contains a plastic of some description. Banning or reducing their use would have a massive impact on the way we live. For instance, replacing plastics with alternative materials such as glass and metals would cost more to manufacture due to the energy consumed and resources - including water - required to process them.
“Furthermore, because plastics are lightweight, transportation of consumer goods in plastic packaging means fewer vehicles are required for transportation of those goods, therefore burning less fuel and greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“So whilst some people may wish for plastics to be reduced or banned altogether, we need to ensure we are replacing them with materials that are better for the planet. In many cases there is no credible alternative to using a plastic, so we need to move towards a 'circular economy' for plastics, rather than the largely 'make-use-dispose' model we currently adopt. This will require changes and improvements in not only the plastics we are making, but getting better at reusing and recycling them”
Professor Bucknall finished: “Clearly we are improving how we deal with plastics in the UK. However, a recent study from the USA estimates that over 96% of all waste plastics that end up in the world's oceans derive from economically developing nations (3). Therefore, without a concerted and coordinated global effort, what we do unilaterally in the UK is only going to have a minuscule impact globally. Working across a global platform is something we are doing with our network.”
A number of organisations, such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and Ellen McCarthur Foundation (EMF), are leading advocates of better stewardship and control of the use and disposal of plastics. This has led to the UK Plastics Pact, where a number of retailers, manufacturers, recyclers and resource management groups have committed to pushing an aggressive agenda of achieving only use of reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 in the UK (4). Additionally, Government action aims to support this initiative with the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, confirming in his autumn budget that a new tax will be introduced from 1 April 2022 on produced or imported plastic packaging that does not include at least 30 per cent recycled content.
Kate Sang, Professor of Gender and Employment Studies at Heriot-Watt's School of Social Sciences, argues that many disabled people rely on plastic, particularly single-use plastics, for their everyday lives.
She said: “If we are to tackle the debate on plastic then we have to do so from an evidence based position. While we have all seen the environmental damage caused by plastic pollution, we must recognise that single use plastics have transformed healthcare in this country and have become essential for delivering a safe and responsible health service.
“Single use plastic straws, for example, are essential for many disabled and elderly people with alternatives such as pasta straws being unsuitable as they're not flexible and cannot be used by those with gluten intolerance, paper straws disintegrate over a short period of time and silicone straws need to be sterilised, which is simply not practical in public places.
“And the idea of straws on prescription is stigmatising and impractical - imagine trying to get a GPs appointment for straws! The strain on the NHS is already well documented and this would only add an even greater burden.
“Food packaging is another area where many campaigners want to see an elimination of single use plastics, for example, grated cheese or pre-chopped onions. However, ready meals, pre-prepared vegetables and other prepared foods enable many people to eat well who otherwise may struggle to prepare meals. We need to move away from ideas that convenience is laziness, when in reality convenience means independence.”
Professor Sang is calling for a joined-up approach to tackling the plastic problem and believes working closer with industry is essential.
She explains: “The focus at this stage should be on working with manufacturers to develop suitable alternatives and for appropriate collection and disposal of single use plastics so that disabled people are not further marginalised.
“Blaming the individual for making choices based on the materials which are made available to them, whether that is single use plastics consumption or disposal, highlights a societal and structural problem.”
Over the next ten years, plastics in the ocean are set to treble according to a UK Government report (5).
The amount of waste plastics polluting the environment, particularly marine habitats is a growing problem the modern world has yet to solve.
Estimates vary as to how much plastic waste leaks into our seas, from 4 million to 12 million tonnes per year globally.
Professor Ted Henry, from the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society at Heriot-Watt University has spent over five years investigating the impact of plastics on marine environments.
He said: “There is a problem with plastics entering the environment and that needs to be addressed but we need to look in the right places to find a long-term solution. Banning plastics is not the answer, efforts should be directed towards creating a circular economy for plastics that integrates product design, use, recycling and reuse of plastics to reduce indiscriminate disposal.
“There are important gaps in our understanding but we should not be rushing to conclusions in order to provide makeshift answers. Further research into the environmental effects must be done within the context of the relative importance other environmental issues confronted by society. Just because plastics are visible does not mean they are the most important environmental issue we are facing.
“Doing so will lead us down a dangerous road where already scarce resources are misdirected and we end up losing out on important opportunities to make a real difference for the environment.”
(1) The Impact of Plastic packaging on Life Cycle Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Europe - Report, July 2011, Denkstatt GmbH; https://denkstatt.eu/download/1994/
(2) Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement - Report, July 2016, Trucost plc; https://www.trucost.com/publication/plastics-and-sustainability/
(3) Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean, JR Jambeck et al, Science, 347(6223) (2015) 768-771
By Craig McManamon
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