Is Plastic Really the Bad Guy?

Or have we been greenwashed enough to believe that?

Just like how humans invented the refrigerator to address the problem of food wastage and ended up destroying the ozone layer, plastic too was invented to address the issue of deforestation for wood pulp to feed the paper industry. 

There are several other examples: The Spanish Flu gave the use of single use straw and cups an exponential push —the consequences of which we are still addressing. If history repeats itself, we will be dealing with disposable masks and gloves washing up the shores and clogging drains and affecting natural ecosystems not too many years from now. 

Peter Senge’s quote makes perfect sense in this context — “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.” 

So, coming back to the topic: Is plastic really that bad? I think it’ll be fair to look at the history of how plastics became mainstream and at what point did we, the human civilization give up on our sustainable ways of reusing, recycling, mending and maintaining things. 

Here’s a wonderful podcast ‘The litter Myth‘ shared in one of the design programs I attended that explores the rise of the plastic as a packaging material. 

As Indians, the phenomenon of disposable and single-use materials can be tracked back to the late 90s or early 20s. The trajectory can also be mapped to the rising disposable incomes – much like in the US and Europe. 

Given the changing consumption and disposal behaviors of people and the availability of resources required to meet the demands of an increasing population, let’s evaluate the role of plastic in the whole system.

Glass: This is one material which every sustainability lover loves! Say eco-friendly and glass tops the list. Glass is made from sand. Unfortunately, there is a growing sand crisis around the globe (including

India) where sand extraction is now changing geological features of natural environments, especially water bodies. The Cauvery river basin at Trichy and Karur are sad but excellent examples of the crisis. Though Glass manufacturing would only be diverting only a fraction of sand extracted (it’s primarily the construction industry) it still doesn’t make it ‘totally good’ but just better. The other reason why Eco champs love glass is reusability and recycling. However, given the way glass is discarded and the segregating process involved, recycling glass could be a much more expensive activity than making virgin glass. Treating mixed material glass or contaminated glass is another aspect. In many countries, recycled glass bottles are more expensive than new bottles. Thereby further discouraging business owners from using it as an alternative.

Metal: Tin containers, steel bottles etc. all fall under this material category. Metal extraction is the most economic and labor-intensive activity. However, what makes metal a favorite alternative is its ability to be reused over and over and that almost 100% of the metal can be recycled to make the same product or something else. This leads to a reduced demand for new metal and therefore extraction. 

Paper: The very reason plastic was invented. As eco lovers, paper looks to be the least impact option of all the other options. Paper can be recycled, however, contrary to the belief, not over and over. Also, every time paper is recycled, it does require virgin pulp to a certain percentage and lots of chemicals. So, while looking at paper, do consider the upstream and downstream activities and externalities. At this point in history, forests are and should be dearer to us. People may argue that trees are a renewable resource, especially options such as bamboo and hemp which are the rising alternatives to feed the paper industry. However, do think about what palm did and is doing to the planet. We have a habit of over-reaping any benefit. Where to draw the line is sadly not one of our best traits as humans. Yes, paper is readily biodegradable. However, how much of the paper that we can compost or bio-degrade is free of toxins or contaminants that may be leaching into our food, soil and water systems? 

Watch this amazing TED talk on paper and sustainability by Leyla. (It’s by far one of my favourite talks)

In Permaculture, there is a reverence to the principle of Diversity and that every plant, creature or life has a role to play in a self-sustaining ecosystem – even what we term as weeds. I feel there are valuable lessons this view. 

If we are to address the challenges of plastic we need to accept that not all plastic is bad. It is just that we haven’t figured how best to use it and make it part of a circular system where there is no waste but only food. Also, that each of us has that responsibility.

Love and Grace

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