Plastic is damaging the planet! But is all plastic bad?

“Plastic is damaging the planet!” “Plastic is killing our marine life!” “If we don’t stop using plastic, we’ll destroy the planet for our children!”

I hear statements like this every day at the moment. It seems that social media, the news and just about anywhere on the internet are full of stories about how we all need to change our lifestyles and stop using plastic. But how much of this is media hype and how much is true? Is all plastic really that bad?

What is the problem with plastic?

Plastics are mostly human made materials that are made from polymers. Without getting too technical, polymers are based on hydrocarbons that mostly come from things like petroleum, natural gas, or coal. Plastic has many uses so other ingredients are often added to give it different characteristics. For example, to help with colour, flexibility, sturdiness and in the case of fillers, overall cost. Plastic is used in so many ways, from building materials to kitchenware to toys to carrier bags. It’s hard to imagine a world where it doesn’t exist!

Whilst plastic is versatile, it is not without its problems. Plastic production relies heavily on unsustainable resources such as petroleum and gas and requires lots of energy and water to produce. Over time, it has become apparent that some plastic products can present health risks due to harmful chemicals, such as  BPA. Sadly, a high proportion of plastic ends up in landfill. Because traditional plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it can either leach chemicals into the soil, or release toxic chemical fumes when incinerated.

Humans are generally not very careful about where we leave our rubbish. Sadly that means that a lot of it ends up in the oceans. You have probably seen the images of fish swimming around plastic bottles and other human made waste on programmes like “Blue Planet”. When plastic eventually breaks down, however, micro and nano plastics enter the water and therefore the food chain too. It’s difficult to imagine a plastic we can buy without guilt. Or is it?

Are there any “good” plastics?

Bio-plastics and biodegradable plastics are being developed all the time. The major difference between bio-plastics and traditional plastics is that rather than using unsustainable resources as the base, they are derived from biomass (plants). Biomass used for bioplastics usually comes from corn, sugar can or cellulose. There are lots of facts about bioplastics on the European bioplastics website if you’re interested in finding out more! An increasing number of companies are now producing products made from bio plastics, including companies who make children’s toys, cutlery, plastic containers and more.

Then there is also recycled plastic. Obviously re-using things is preferable to just throwing them away! There are concerns amongst environmental groups, however, that the perception of plastic as being easy to recycle will just add to the problem. Although consumers feel confident using more plastic because it can be recycled, they don’t always dispose of it correctly. Recycled plastic is not perfect. It still requires significant amounts of water and energy for production when compared to other resources. However, it has great potential as an eco-friendly resource. It helps to address a massive pre-existing waste problem, is extremely versatile, and can be infinitely recycled. 

What can we do to help?

The best thing we can do is to reduce the amount of single use plastic we use in the first place. Simple things like carrying our own shopping bags, investing in a reusable water bottle and saying no to straws. We can think about whether things can be re-used or re-purposed rather than thrown away. Or whether the kids really need those cheap plastic toys at the checkout (something most of us have been guilty of, especially during school holidays)! In some circumstances swapping plastic for eco friendly alternatives, such as bamboo, can be good. 

We can also make sure that plastic is properly recycled. There are so many different types of plastic that it can be confusing trying to work out what can and can’t be recycled. Thankfully there are some great websites, such as the recycling guide, which explain the confusing symbols on the different types of plastic too! Disposing of your plastics carefully can allow them to be transformed into fantastic products! Each ton of recycled plastic saves over 16 barrels of oil, uses approximately 60% less energy to produce than virgin plastic and creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

What next?

Whilst in some ways plastic is damaging the planet, it isn’t quite as simple as that. Plastic is used to make things because it is durable and doesn’t break down. So essentially it’s just doing its job! The problem comes when plastic is only used once or twice and then discarded. I think it’s good that we’re becoming more aware of what we use, but I think there’s the danger that all plastic is “demonised” as bad. Obviously in an ideal world, we would want to use things that are as sustainable as possible. I love making things out of wood for example. However, I use reclaimed wood and windfall trees as much as possible because chopping down a tree every time I want to make something isn’t practical! I think it’s the same with sustainable alternatives to plastic.

The research I’ve been doing into living a more sustainable life has led me to my next question: are all products that are marketed as sustainable, actually better than the things we use already? Come back next week to see what I’ve found out!