plastic bottle caps
Misconceptions,  Sustainability

Misconception: The Thing with Plastic | Ok wow.

Everyone is talking about the environmental impact of plastic, which means a lot of half-knowledge is buzzing around. I will try to clear up a few misconceptions. But there is so much to say about it, so I will try to limit myself.

We consume a lot of plastic

Humanity produces and uses plastic every day in large quantities with the trend pointing upwards [1,2]. That is problematic as a new study by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) shows that its production and combustion will create 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in 2019 and here, too, the trend is upwards [3]. So, we need to ask ourselfs how to address the impact of plastic on the environment since climate change in general but also the impact of plastic in particular are very controversially discussed topics that cause a lot of emotions [4]. That is why I want to show that there are some misconceptions about plastic, especially packaging, that lead the discussion about the impact of plastics in the wrong direction and hinder a solution of the problem.

Misconceptions about plastic packaging

The Zero Waste movement can give you the impression that individuals must give up every form of plastic, but especially plastic packaging. The inernet celebrates plastic-free households as well as packaging alternatives such as glass. If, however, we take a look at the energy consumption of these alternatives and the GHG emissions, it becomes clear that these are higher than those of plastic. So, they are not better for the environment. Apart from that, plastic packaging in private households only accounts for 1% of the total amount of waste in Europe. Which means that the impact of plastic waste created by individuals is very low compared to the impact of companies. [5]

Our brains trick us

This is also confirmed by a study by A. T. Kearney, which shows that even if the study participants feel that they can significantly reduce their CO2 footprint by reducing the number of plastic bags used, this only has a negligible impact, if compared with other measures, such as avoiding air travel or meat [5, 6]. But since people think plastic has a great impact compared to other influential parameters influencing the environment, the media and politicians are also fuelling this narrative.

Bioplastics

Therefore, single-use plastic will be banned, and so-called bioplastics are entering the market. Those compostable and biodegradable plastics are supposed to break down, making them a better alternative to conventional plastics. However, scientists have since refuted this. In order to break down, they need very specific conditions and waste management facilities often don’t have the proper equipment to deal with those alternatives. Apart from that, there is the misconception that degradable plastics can be disposed of in nature and decompose there. Since this is not the case, these alternatives contribute to both land and sea pollution. [7, 8]

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Under certain conditions though, for example when using renewable energy, bioplastics may have a lower environmental impact during production than its conventional counterpart. This highly depends on the country and bioplastics used, because they don’t have an uniform impact. [9]

Instead of focusing on alternatives, we need to reduce plastic wherever possible and use durable plastic products as long as possible. These can then usually be recycled and reused for other products. [8] It must be noted though, that right now most plastics don’t get recycled but e. g. end up in landfill. Plastic packaging, in particular, is difficult to recycle because it includes many stages. Also, it is very costly compared to virgin plastic and the value of the recycled material is often low. [10]

Additionally, most of the plastic waste accumulated in European and North American countries gets shipped to Asia instead of being treated in the respective countries. This creates the impression that these Asian countries are responsible for the environmental pollution of plastics, although it is the waste of developed countries that accept or rather ignore the underdeveloped waste management systems in these countries. [5] Therefore, it would be sensible to promote and improve recycling and adapt the design of the products. That way, they can be recycled in the respective countries in the first place.

The impact of plastic in general

Even though it might seem like plastic, especially it’s packaging and single-use form, might not have as great an impact in private households, it is still important to reduce plastic production. As mentioned before, if we don’t limit the production and combustion in general the GHG emissions will rise in the future. But not just the emissions caused by production and combustion need to be discussed. We also need to consider the impact of waste released into the environment when talking about GHG emissions. A study by the CIEL has found that plastic released into the environment might inhibit the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. The influence of plastics in this area has not yet been extensively researched. Scientists should focus on conducting on further studies. [3]

Conclusion

When talking about the impact of plastic in private households and biodegradable plastics, the perceptions of people can lead to a wrong approach in environmental protection. Reducing plastic in general is important. But it’s only one area that we need to improve to reduce GHG emissions and address the climate crisis. At the end, it depends on whether we look at plastic as a singularity or as part of the system. In other words, the impact of plastics depends on whether, for example, marine pollution, CO2 emissions, GHG emissions or something else is considered.

Additionally, the impact of plastic varies from country to country. So, when talking about its impact it is necessary to keep in mind whether we consider the global, regional or local level. Furthermore, we cannot ban it completely before presenting sensible alternatives. It can be said that bioplastics are not a sensible alternative. They are still plastic and can’t be properly treated in waste management facilities at the moment. In general, if we only look at alternatives, we won’t be able to tackle this problematic.

Instead, the focus should be on reducing plastic consumption and improving waste management. Companies in particular must reduce their consumption, as their plastic use is higher than that of private households. Also, governments should look into changing legislation to make production of virgin plastic unattractive.

lena

Sources:
[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/282732/global-production-of-plastics-since-1950/
[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1023347/consumption-of-single-use-plastic-item-united-kingdom/
[3] https://www.ciel.org/news/plasticandclimate/
[4] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-69838-0_9
[5]https://menshen.com/fileadmin/user_upload/181205_FAQ_Praesentation_ENG_Vers.pdf
[6] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-reduces-our-personal-co2-footprint-we-have-clue-frank-bilstein
[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/12/plastic-alternatives-may-worsen-marine-pollution-mps-warn
[8] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/07/the-search-for-a-cleaner-greener-plastic-ocean-pollution-landfill-bioplastic-pla-composting
[9] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11367-010-0162-9
[10] https://www.statista.com/chart/18064/plastic-waste-in-the-us-municipal-solid-waste-disposal/

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