What is driving the plastic backlash?

Yesterday The Guardian published a long-form article on “The Plastic Backlash”.  It’s an interesting read that touches on a lot of issues.  There was even a brief mention of how corporations provide the funding for many environmental associations and how that has helped shift the burden of environmental responsibility from producers to consumers.  That could be another long-form piece, in and of itself!

I wanted to focus on the idea of political populism that is driving the response to the ‘plastic problem’.  On the one hand, there is no denying that it is good and necessary to bring attention to the issue; only a few years ago none of us knew about the environmental impacts of polymer microbeads in our face and body scrubs or of straws, today both have been successfully legislated against.  On the other hand, as the article mentions, political support for legislation against plastics can be motivated by unrelated issues – overcompensating for the piss poor inaction against climate change or distracting from a massive political cock-up like Brexit – resulting in legislation that favours fast and showy results while neglecting root causes, the primary one being our high levels of consumption and consumerism.  For example, bans on single-use plastics may just end up shifting the environmental impacts from one material to another, like wood or biomaterials.  If Seamless continues to provide disposable cutlery in its deliveries as a default rather than an opt-in option, we’ve only solved the single-use problem for plastics and will end up with new issues for another material.  This is also often the case with plastic bag bans that only end up banning plastic single-use bags from groceries and stores, which end up replacing the millions of bags they give away with single-use paper bags instead.  And as such, vendors have no need to introduce a far more sustainable reusable bag system.

Banning a material or product is no small legislative feat, and it inevitably comes up against a lot of lobbying.  Most of this is from industry protecting their own interests, and rightfully so.  There is profit in making single-use plastics, but there are also people with jobs behind those products and they deserve to be represented as well.  Some of this lobbying can also come from other interest groups that introduce us to points of views we hadn’t considered before – interest groups representing disabled rights had a lot to say about the ban on straws.  Either way, legislating a ban takes a lot of time and energy, and it takes those resources away from creating less flashy but possibly more effective measures.  Legislation that bans the use of PVC shrink labels on PET bottles or metal handles on HDPE/PP buckets is considerably less sexy for politicians or even environmental groups to crow about, but might be just as, or even more, effective in reducing the amount of plastic and waste sent to landfills.

I started my career as a lobbyist for the plastics industry and that experience taught me that there are detrimental and wasteful uses of plastics, but there are also very beneficial ones.  Recycling technology and innovations in using recycled polymers in different applications, or as compatibilisers that can even improve polymer performance, are still advancing.  Creating policies that mandate recycled content in new products, as the UK has recently done, are a step in the right direction.  If those kinds of policies are not backed up with adequate funding to strengthen the recycling infrastructure, however, we can’t obtain the clean material streams needed to meet those recycled content requirements.  We need a combination of well thought out policies that address how to reduce consumption, designing out waste, improving collection systems, and eliminating wasteful products.

The author ended the article with a quote from Richard Thompson, an oceanographer who coined the term ‘microplastic’: “At no time in the past 30 years have we had a convergence like this, with scientists, business, and government,” he said. “There’s a real chance to get this thing right.”  I share Thompson’s optimism… as long as everyone is motivated by the right reasons.

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