Plastics are said to be a major threat to our environment. People demand change and policies follow without any proof that they help. Likewise, new products spring up to replace plastics but with no proof as to whether they are better or worse than the plastics they replace.
As a scientist and professional problem solver, I know that we need to have the facts before we can find solutions that work. Those facts were presented in my book The Plastics Paradox. In that book I specifically avoided proposing policies because I thought that politicians would realize what to do when they saw the evidence. It turns out that I was overly optimistic in that regard. What actually happened was that people asked me to propose the policies that make sense based on the evidence. They pointed out that as the only person who has investigated all of the topics (materials, LCA, waste, litter, degradation, ocean plastics, microplastics and so on), I am uniquely placed to propose solutions.
So, as the alleged leading independent expert, this document will take what the science showed us in The Plastics Paradox and translate that into workable solutions for a brighter future. We will also look at some of the popular “solutions” we see proposed in the media and ponder as to whether they could actually work.
I see people saying that we should get rid of plastics. Would that work? I think that most people, even including the people proposing it, realize that it would not, but let us consider it anyway.
We know that plastics are under 1% of materials we use and less than 1% of waste either by weight or by volume. This number alone tells us that there is no way that banning plastics can be the answer. There is simply no chance to solve our problem of overconsumption of materials and overproduction of waste by removing less than 1% of the cause – that is basic logic. If I were to clean 1% of my house, the rest of the house would not magically tidy itself, in fact, it would make no real impact. The same goes for removing 1% of materials and waste.
Banning plastics would have not solve our materials use or waste problems
When it comes to household waste, plastics make up a much larger percentage. They comprise about 13-15% by weight of what goes into a landfill and a similar percentage by volume. The public perception is that plastics are filling our landfills, but the evidence says that’s not the case. Removing 15% of landfill contents would certainly make a significant impact but it would not solve the problem because 85% would remain.
Not only would it not solve the problem, we know that it takes 3-4lb of other materials on average to replace 1lb of plastic. So, replacing plastic would massively increase household waste. You can check this yourself. Weigh a plastic bag then weigh a paper bag. Where I live, the supermarket is called Kroger and their plastic bags weigh 5.5g and their paper bags weigh 60g. I weighed a plastic straw (1g) and a paper straw (2g). Many other examples exist, and as I said, scientists have proven that plastics massively reduced waste going to landfill.
Banning plastics would significantly increase household and landfill waste
What about the environmental impact of plastics? In both of the examples above, we know that the plastic solution causes least harm. There are 28 LCA studies on bags around the world and every single one concludes that plastic bags are greenest. Let me say this clearly – replacing plastic bags increases environmental harm according to every study ever done anywhere in the world. So, why are politicians banning them? Because they were too lazy, too stupid or too corrupt to look at the evidence. Just type “LCA grocery bag” into Google and you will see the evidence – there no excuse for politicians or Greenpeace not to have found these studies. In the book I gave examples where wood was greener than plastic, and in those cases, we should probably use wood. But for most applications including bags, straws and bank notes, plastic like PE, PP and PET is the proven greenest option, so that’s what we should choose if we want to protect the environment. What if you are not sure or cannot find an LCA? In general plastic is greener than metal, glass or paper. Sometimes paper and plastic are close, in which case the lighter product will usually be the one with least impact. In the case of straws, don’t take any straw at all. In the case of water, avoid containers where possible and drink tap water. Simple.
Banning plastic would increase harm to the environment according to LCA studies
What about litter? Surely banning plastic would solve the litter problem? I see a lot of people who believe that plastics or companies are creating a litter problem. However, scientific studies prove beyond doubt that people are responsible for litter and those people are called litterers. Blaming materials or companies for litter is naïve, unjust and counterproductive. In addition, there is no evidence that banning or replacing plastics would lead to less litter. Imagine a person walking down the street with a cup in their hand. They do not decide whether to drop it on the floor based on whether it is plastic or paper. Similarly, a paper straw is a likely to be dropped by an inconsiderate litterer as a plastic straw is. There are proven ways to reduce litter and those include cleaning the area, education, fines and deposit systems whereby the litter has monetary value, so people drop it less and if it is dropped then others are incentivized to clean it up.
Banning plastic would not solve the litter problem
What about taxing plastic? Does that make sense? There are many places proposing or implementing taxes on plastic items like bags, straws and cutlery. The effect of increasing the price on products is to encourage people to buy other products instead. The problem is that we know that the plastic bags and straws are the greenest choice, as proven by many LCA studies, so why discourage people from choosing the least harmful product and drive them toward more harmful choices like paper, metal and glass? It makes no sense and harms the environment. As far as I can tell, such taxes are a blatant money grab by politicians, who need little excuse to take our money.
How about the oceans? We hear a lot about plastic in the oceans. The first thing to say is that there is too much pollution in our oceans. There are chemicals, glass, wood, metals, explosives, toxins, paper, cardboard and much more. We know that from scientific studies. For some reason, people are keen to ignore every type of ocean pollution except for plastics. Why is that? Plastics float and the rest sinks – out of sight, out of mind. Even if we accept that it is fine to ignore all the pollution and just focus on plastics, what do we know about the plastic floating around and in the famous gyres? We know that half of it is discarded fishing gear, meaning litter dropped by fishing crews and the rest is also litter and mismanaged waste. It is a litter problem and there is no evidence to suggest that banning plastics would help. Solutions are the same as for land-based litter meaning education, fines and a DRM scheme. I bet if there was a $50 000 deposit on commercial fishing nets, they would not be abandoned anymore.
Banning plastics would not solve the ocean litter problem
Many people believe that plastics take too long to degrade. They would prefer a magic material that simply vanishes when we throw it on the floor. I call this the Harry Potter solution. Is it true that plastics take too long to degrade? In a word – no. Plastics degrade as quicky or quicker than other materials including metals, glass, ceramics, wood and even paper. It is not accurate or fair to criticize plastics for their degradation rate. In fact, plastics are so unstable that companies spend billions of dollars per year on stabilizers to slow down their degradation. Blaming materials for not magically vanishing when we litter them is unjust and unrealistic.
New plastics said to be bio-degradable or compostable have been presented as a solution to litter but as we know, the Harry Potter solution does not work and just encourages people to litter more. Furthermore, these new degradable plastics are worse for the environment than the standard plastics like PE and PP, so this is a case of green-washing where the solution makes companies money but does not help the environment.
Banning plastics based on degradation rate makes no sense
What about safety? There are plenty of articles questioning the effect of microplastics and chemicals that could leach out of plastics. A review of the topic revealed no credible evidence of harm from microplastics. The few scientific articles that do claim adverse effects are junk science meaning that they performed the experiments so unprofessionally that the results are not valid. Common mistakes include using a million times too much microplastic compared to what is realistic and using a type of microplastic that doesn’t even exist in the environment. These people are creating hype to get your attention and to attract more funding. An investigation showed that the media have been extremely misleading as well, meaning that they intentionally report scary microplastic stories that do not reflect the actual scientific opinion on the subject.
Banning plastics makes no sense on safety grounds
What other actions do people propose and do they make sense? I see regular posts where people scoop plastic up from the ocean surface. Can we really make an impact that way? The answer is no. The NOAA (part of the US government) calculated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean 1% of one gyre (there are several gyres). Because the ocean plastic has a low concentration (around 5g per Olympic pool of water in the gyres), it is not possible to clean it up effectively. In fact, sailing a fleet of ships up and down burning diesel and belching out black smoke increases environmental harm and it a therefore a terrible idea. That does not stop opportunistic people fleecing investors to do it though.
Scooping up plastic from the oceans does not work and increases harm
What should we do then? We know that the plastic entering the oceans from rivers is actually 500x slower than previously thought. That is positive news, which is why you have not seen it covered by the media. To address the situation we need to help the few remaining countries that dump the plastic into the oceans and crack down on the fishing industry, as described earlier. The plastic already in the oceans will then degrade and vanish.
What about extended producer responsibility (EPR)? Isn’t it the duty of the product manufacturers to clean up the mess? No – it isn’t. Do we expect cigarette manufacturers to follow every smoker and pick up the butt? Do we expect them to recycle the cigarette butts? No, we do not. Even though cigarettes are the number one type of litter, no sensible person thinks that it is the cigarette company’s jobs to stalk their customers and clean their litter.
When we buy a product, we pay sales tax and part of that goes to provide trash cans, collection and waste disposal. It all works just fine. The items that are littered are cleaned up too using those taxes. If we implemented EPR that would mean that the customers pay for the same service twice. They pay the government once to do it then pay the product manufacturer again through increased prices. That makes no sense to me. Although forcing companies to clean up and recycle may be unjust, a case could be made that companies should step in and help anyway, especially in countries where the government have failed to act. Large companies should not knowingly create problems and then refuse to help solve them.
Mandated EPR is unjust but voluntary EPR could be a partial solution
The public perception is that plastics consume vast amounts of oil and that would be a reason to avoid them. How valid are those claims? It is true that about 5% of oil is used to make plastics and about 85% is burnt for example to power our vehicles and to heat our homes. The so-called environmental groups like to point out that oil is used to make plastics but they “forget” to mention the other side of that story. We know that plastics make our vehicles much lighter which reduces gasoline (oil) consumption. Plastics also reduce oil use by insulating our buildings and preventing food spoilage. When you run the numbers, it is clear that the net effect of plastics is to reduce overall oil consumption. That’s right – plastics save much more than the 5% of oil used to make them.
Banning plastics would increase oil consumption, not decrease it
Finally, it has been stated that because plastic production results in carbon dioxide emissions, we should cease production. Is that really the case? Once again, this naïve and misleading conclusion comes from looking only at one side of the coin. LCA studies conclusively prove that plastics reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions which should come as no surprise because they reduce the burning of oil, as just mentioned above. Furthermore, LCA shows that replace replacements lead to far greater carbon dioxide emissions. It is estimated that replacing plastic would result in 5-15x greater release of the gas that people are trying to avoid to control global warming.
Banning plastics would massively increase carbon dioxide emissions
Banning, replacing or taxing plastics makes no sense meaning that it would increase harm to the environment. At the moment, people are proposing and implementing policies proven to increase harm because they have not checked the facts before they acted. In most cases the free market leads to the greenest choice because usually, the greenest choice is also the cheapest. Not only are policies harming the environment but they are needlessly increasing cost to the customer.
By looking at the scientific evidence on all of the relevant topics, we can see which policies are doomed to fail and which policies are likely to work. Any policies should concentrate on the real problems and not the symptoms, just as a good doctor would do.The problems are human behaviour (addressed with education and fines) and poor waste management (requiring better infrastructure) whereas current policies focus on the symptom (plastic litter).
I hope that after reading The Plastics Paradox book and browsing this website you can see the path to a brighter future. Please make your voice is heard because at the moment, well-meaning people are campaigning for the wrong actions and we need to put them back on course for the sake of the environment and future generations.