Governments. Businesses. NGOs. Everyday citizens. Today, many of us are taking important steps to help reduce waste and protect our environment. I think we can all agree that’s a very good thing.
But earlier this week, the Editorial Board at the LA Times called for California to phase out all “single-use” plastics. This was a serious proposal. But if our goal is to reduce waste and shrink our environmental footprint, then acting on it would be a serious mistake.
There are good reasons certain products are designed for just one use, many of which center around promoting health and hygiene. Eliminating those products because they are made of plastic would deprive consumers of everyday products we depend on, such as bandages, contact lenses, diapers and the vast majority of our food packaging. (And that’s before we get to medical necessities, such as IV tubes and sterile packaging for things like syringes, pharmaceuticals, sutures, and gauze.)
The reason these and other essential products are made with plastic is because plastic does its job better than alternatives. Strong yet lightweight, plastics are incredibly efficient and often let us do more with less material, and that’s critical for reducing environmental impacts. Using less material in the first place is a tremendous environmental benefit that results in dramatic reductions in resource and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste. A 2016 study by the firm Trucost found the environmental cost of using plastics in consumer goods and packaging is nearly four times less than if plastics were replaced with alternative materials. In other words, switching from plastics to alternatives would dramatically increase environmental impacts. Of course, no one wants that.
That’s not to say we as a society can’t do more to reduce waste, to reuse more, and to keep the plastic we do use out of the environment—including our oceans.
That’s why America’s plastics makers support efforts to phase out microbeads in rinse-off products, allow customers to choose not to take a straw if they don’t need one, and bring reusable bags shopping or recycle the bags they do use. Plus we led the formation of a global declaration aimed at bringing together plastics groups in other countries to help end marine litter.
In addition, we and our partners are investing in solutions to keep plastics in use and out of our oceans. Our vision is for every piece of post-use plastics to be recycled or remade into raw materials for new products—including, new plastics. Innovative technologies and programs promise to make this possible. Some of these include:
- Chemical recycling (or depolymerization), which converts used plastics back into the building blocks (i.e., monomers) of new plastic raw materials
- Recycling programs for wraps, bags and other flexible packaging, like WRAP and Materials Recovery for the Future
- Compatibilizers, which can boost the compatibility and performance properties of mixed recycled resins
- Programs that allow residents to bag non-recycled plastics and place them in their recycling carts to be processed into fuels or manufacturing feedstocks.
The quest for a more circular approach to managing our plastics resources is real, and it’s happening right now. Innovative approaches already underway are making real progress, so the plastics we use today can become the plastics we’ll rely on—for better health, hygiene and efficiency—in the future.
But doing the R&D and investing in these technologies is not enough. Because if editorial boards at major daily papers seriously think we can or should ban essential products like these, then that should be a wake-up call for all of us.