Joe Friday (a television detective in the 60s) was right, the facts will help more than colorful or emotional descriptions. When it comes to plastic, so much poorly researched information is being passed around that people are unable to comprehend what effect a ban on plastic would have in the future and just get emotional.
Context is King
Numbers are always interesting but sometimes we do need a little context to understand them. Here is a typical example.
Plastic bottles last for 300-400 years.
By itself, it seems that plastic bottles will last a helluva long time. However, put in context it becomes more difficult to get the point. Aluminum will also last hundreds of years and glass lasts for millions of years, so what is the point of mentioning longevity if such durability is seen as a positive in other materials? Once you add that some plastics are easier and cheaper to recycle, with a lower carbon footprint than other materials, the lack of context can be misleading.
Context would help the reader greatly in articles that state the manufacture of plastics from crude oil is on the rise. Without any context, this may sound disturbing, but when you understand that, while plastics today account for about 4% of crude oil use (no agency has exact numbers), fuels for transportation take up to 50%. Why is this important?
Oil demand for transport is expected to slow by 2050 due to the rise of electric vehicles and more-efficient combustion engines, but that would be offset by rising demand for petrochemicals, the International Energy Agency or IEA, said in a 2018 report. What is missing here is that a lot of the plastics being made are destined to lightweight the very vehicles that are mentioned. About 50% of the volume of an automobile today is made of plastic, or about 10% of its weight, and that saves fuel. Airplanes have been the worst polluters by weight of any other mode of transportation, but are lightweighting to save fuel and thus lower global warming. Aircraft have used plastics in their construction since World War II and quickly replaced rubber tires. New, high-tech plastics are helping make passenger aircraft lighter, more durable, and more fuel-efficient. Carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics, or CFRP, are made of one or more plastics combined with fibers made from carbon, resulting in lightweight, extremely strong, materials. These composites help reduce the weight of the aircraft and contribute to a 20 percent reduction in fuel consumption. Better fuel efficiency also translates into lower carbon and other emissions during the lifetime of the aircraft and the planes can fly longer without refueling.
Misunderstandings also arise from the fact that plastics can be quite a technical matter and the public, understandably perhaps, doesn't want to get into it that much. During a recent public panel discussion on the necessity (or not) of plastics came the statement that polyethylene terephthalate, abbreviated as PET and commonly used to make water bottles, was dangerous because it contains phthalates, an endocrine disruptor (let's just say that it is bad for you). When an explanation was offered that there are two major types of phthalates, ortho- and tere-phthalate, and that ortho-phthalates are the dangerous ones, the moderator panicked and said that the explanation was too detailed and changed the subject. As British politician Michael Gove famously said in 2016, "People have had enough of experts."
Besides context and science, incomplete facts are often taken at face value and repeated on social media. The most famous is the statement that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. While estimating the amount of plastic reaching the ocean may be possible, unless someone counts the fish it becomes difficult to accept the whole statement without a very large pinch of salt.
The Future is Always Difficult to Foresee
A lack of foresight by both governments and individuals could well have a significantly negative effect on global warming and climate change. In February 2019, Aamirah Patel, writing in an article for TRT World, mentioned that, "Sikkim was the first Indian state to ban disposable plastic bags in 1997 and instead shifted to paper bags or newspapers." This is truly horrifying for anyone who knows that paper bags have a larger negative effect on global warming than plastic bags for several reasons. Obviously, the manufacture of paper means cutting down trees and relieving the world of effective natural carbon sinks and oxygen production. Secondly, whoever thought paper bags jumped out of trees without a manufacturing process that in itself has a large carbon footprint is being irrational. Paper bags are single-use products that release methane when biodegrading, a worse contributor than carbon dioxide to global warming, while the chemicals used to produce paper sink into the soil.
Destroying the Environment is not a Good Way to Save the World
In a strange aberration of memory, people have forgotten that Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin created plastic bags in 1959 to save the planet. As The Independent newspaper and the BBC noted in 2019, plastic bags were developed as an alternative to paper bags, which were considered bad for the environment because they resulted in forests being chopped down. Plastic bags were invented with the idea that they were reusable - something the planet forgot. It is this blind return to deforestation in the name of saving the environment that is most disturbing. China already cuts about eight million trees annually just to make single-use wooden chopsticks when plastic ones can be easily washed and reused. Now, restaurants are handing out single-use paper straws, which is simply continuing the throwaway lifestyle of modern man.
One problem society faces is it is often unaware of where plastics are used and therefore makes an assumption that certain materials must be plastic-free. It isn't that simple. Want to use an aluminum canister for your water or coffee? Well, metal containers and cans are frequently lined with plastic to stop the "metallic" taste you would otherwise get. Prefer a paper coffee cup over a foam one? Most paper cups are now lined with plastic so your coffee doesn't leak out.
What the world needs at this time is more awareness, factual answers and context. Few people even consider that all alternatives, like biodegradable plastics made from plants, are single-use and often have a greater impact on global warming, via the water use associated with growing the plants to the carbon footprint coming from transportation and their end-of-life degradation and the temperatures required to achieve this. Using biodegradable plastics in transportation is clearly impractical.
We know that plastic is a durable product that can be recycled and we know that it must be increasingly used if we are to fully develop our vision of lightweight, efficient, transportation. If recycled plastics can be used for this purpose, all the better. But let us not make rash decisions today that result in further environmental problems down the road.
©Richard William Jones 2020