It’s easy to get up in arms about the issue of plastic in our oceans, especially when the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now growing at a rate faster than imagined.
We attended the British Antarctic Survey’s workshop on Plastics in the Ocean to gather with scientists and experts and come up with solutions to this global issue. We were expecting a range of solutions to do away with plastic, assuming that would be the general goal. But while getting rid of single-use plastics was agreed all round, getting rid of plastics all together may not be as environmentally beneficial as we first thought.
Environmental benefits of plastic
“The challenge is establishing the balance between problems and benefits” explained Professor Thomson from the University of Plymouth.
Professor Thomson has been working on the issue of plastics in the ocean for 25 years. And while part of his presentation outlined the negatives of plastic marine litter, he also made a counter point to the complete banning of plastics:
“Plastics aren’t the enemy. They have the potential to reduce our carbon footprint…They’re highly durable and inexpensive”.
It terms of reducing our carbon footprint, plastics require far less energy to produce and transport. Even the production of paper bags has a higher carbon footprint than plastic. Plastic used in transportation vehicles (cars, buses, aircraft, etc) makes them lighter and reduces the amount of energy they use. Here’s some interesting statistics pulled from the British Plastics Foundation (BPF) website:
- “22% of an Airbus A380 double-decker aircraft is built with lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastics, saving fuel and lowering operating costs by 15%.”
- “105kg of plastics, rather than traditional materials in a car weighing 1,000 kg, makes possible a fuel saving of 750 litres over a lifespan of 90,000 miles. This reduces oil consumption by 12 million tonnes and consequently CO2 emissions by 30 million tonnes in the European Union.”
The BPF further explains that PVC used for window and door double glazing and Expanded Polystyrene for insulation, improves the energy efficiency of our homes and workplaces. Plastics also make up important components in renewable energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, pipes, etc.
And speaking of pipes, “772 miles of London cracked Victorian water mains are being replaced by blue plastic pipes” because they are more flexible, durable and prevent water leakage.
So, where do we go from here?
Clearly there are environmental benefits to plastics. But marine plastics are still strangling and suffocating marine life, and micro- and nano-size plastics continue to enter the marine food chain. So, what should we do?
“Waste is not waste until it is wasted”, urged Ruth Fletcher from UNEP-WCMC.
It is possible for plastic production to go full circle, as proven by Recycling Technologies who presented their plastic recycling machine, which can turn plastic back into oil and then back into plastic, again and again.
But even without plastics being reused full circle, we can look at the ‘end-of-life’ of plastic products as opposed to seeing only the end-of-production.
“In theory, we can have all the benefits without the environmental degradation”, Professor Thompson argued, “but we need to get rid of single-use plastics that are not well designed with end-of-life in mind”. Both Professor Thompson and Barry Turner (from BPF) argued that single-use plastics are so easily discarded because they have little value in our busy lives.
So maybe the biggest shift we can make in regards to plastic pollution is not to do away with plastic entirely, but to value it as a sustainable product that can actually serve the environment. If we gave plastic value, would we want to throw it away? If we saw plastic as a way of improving our carbon footprint, wouldn’t we be more careful with how we use it?