Of Straws & Bags

Banning straws, bags and even single use plastics, seem to be increasingly popular and in vogue today. However if you take a closer look at the policies, these bans leave the impression that they solve the plastics pollution problem without much discussion of systematicsolutions, or the economic costs that entails, nor does it address the extent to which the burden of global warming can be mitigated.

Given their polluting nature, it is understandable why governments are devising ways to ban them, but what about the other countless forms of packaging ? Single use packaging for logistics, food, medicines, electronics, toys, daily consumables just to name a few. Wouldn’t that require a good scrutiny too in order to bring about a holistic and meaningful change?

If plastic packaging is really deemed irrelevant, what other choices of packaging can businesses and consumers look at without driving up operational costs and retail prices eventually? Can that alternative material be as versatile, flexible, moisture resistant, functional, hygienic, light weight, safe, affordable, readily available and most importantly convenient? Those are some of the many attractive qualities that lead us, around the world, to such a voracious appetite since the 1950s.  Basically, is there another material that can make the same or better sense, on all fronts, than plastics? We live in an extremely fast paced society with a burgeoning world population, and where everything is moving towards an “on-demand” basis, we really and simply cannot do without packaging. This is reality.

Assuming we have an effective ban on the above items, and assuming we neglect the social and economic costs of implementing such a policy, we may see a marginal reduction in pollution (Bloomberg News estimates that on a global scale, straws would probably only account for 0.03 percent of total plastic waste by mass), but the issue of global warming is still largely unresolved.

Plastic bags are also less than 0.5% of the litter stream, according to the head of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. That low percentage is confirmed by EPA data. (See, e.g., EPA, Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures, p. 53, showing that the entire category of plastic sacks, wraps, and bags—including trash bags as well as grocery bags—together account for only a little over one percent of all municipal solid waste, and only a small fraction of overall plastics.

In an editorial for the environmental journal, Marine Policy, conservationists Richard Stafford and Peter Jones say:

 “While small steps have been taken or are planned to help reduce plastic waste, this should not prevent the large scale systemic changes needed internationally to tackle environmental concerns.”

Such a ban against the items aforementioned will not see our temperatures reduce by several degrees just like that. This is because the carbon dioxide emissions produced during the production of plastic packaging, regardless of what they are meant for, is not even near the range of the top 3 carbon intensive industries globally, namely transportation fuel, electricity generation and real estate emissions.

Researchers at the University of California also concluded their take on what measures could potentially mitigate the rise in global warming:

“…found that replacing fossil-based energy with renewable sources had the greatest impact on plastic's greenhouse gas emissions overall. Transitioning to 100% renewable energy -- a purely theoretical scenario… would reduce emissions by 51%.”

In addition, they added:

Increasing the percentage of bio-based plastics could also drive down emissions. Bio-based plastics are produced from plants, which capture atmospheric CO2 as they grow. If they are composted, carbonaceous materials in bio-plastics are released back to the atmosphere as CO2. This makes the material itself carbon-neutral, although manufacturing still generates a small amount of greenhouse gasses.”

We drastically overestimate the environmental impact of the small changes we are prepared to make, while underestimating the impact of changes that seem more extreme. We should not allow our beliefs to conform to what we think is tolerable but what is best for the environment. Good packaging is an entitlement and not a privilege. By banning this need, it belittles the capabilities of scientific advancement of today. Science is here to solve issues and to augment mankind’s desire for progress, and biobased plastics is the best bet we have for now.

In the words of Slat, in the Economist 2017:

“Technology is the most potent agent of change. It is an amplifier of our human capabilities.”