Should we stop using plastic?

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

Plastic pollutes the oceans [1] and harms wildlife [2]. It’s also made from fossil fuels, using 6% of oil globally [8]. We should just ban plastic, right? Not that easy, unfortunately.

Apart from acceptable exceptions like medical implants [3], plastic packaging can also make food last longer so less is thrown away, which can have a positive environmental impact despite the plastic going to waste [5].

You might think more natural materials like paper and cotton are more environmentally friendly, but this is often not the case [10,12]. For example, you’d have to reuse an organic cotton bag some 20,000 times to have as low an environmental impact as a thin (LDPE) plastic bag [10]!!

What about plastic pollution though? To stop this, we need to not let plastic enter the oceans. For that, we need two things: 1) a way to collect it at its source and 2) a way to dispose of it.

Improving plastic collection and recycling on land is key, since 80% of ocean plastic comes from land (e.g. thrown into rivers that spill into the ocean) [7]. We also need to ensure boats don’t drop plastic in the sea [13]. An alternative to recycling is burning plastic [7]; the CO2 this produces could be captured instead of being released into the atmosphere [6].

But even if we were to store all plastic waste, without recycling or burning it, there would be enough space for it without dumping it in the ocean: All plastic waste ever produced weighs ~6.3 billion tons [4]. Taking an average density of 100kg per cubic meter [3], it would “only” take 20km x 20km of space if we pile it up 157 meters high. That’s a lot of space, but it’s smaller than the amount of landfill we already have [11].

So: Plastic is very useful [5], has a relatively low carbon footprint per item [10], and disposing of it responsibly is possible [6]. We should absolutely avoid needless packaging and single-use items, but plastic isn’t generally an enemy. Rather, we should reuse, recycle (where possible), and dispose of plastic responsibly. This is true for everything – not just plastic.


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