by Calvin Lakhan
First off, I want to preface this by saying I have nothing against Jason Mamoa – in fact, I enjoy his movies and he seems like a perfectly nice guy. But with all due respect to him (and the 30 other celebrities who signed a letter to President Biden asking the administration to impose a restriction on plastics manufacturing), they aren’t the first group I would look to for advice about the issue.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why they ask Hollywood stars and starlets to lend their voice to various social/environmental causes – it galvanizes the public, with the hopes of bringing more eyes to the pressing issues of our time. What I do find irksome though is that somehow celebrity opinion carries greater gravitas with the public than actual science does. In many ways, the conversation surrounding plastics (their role, whether they are good, bad or something in between etc.) is being shaped far more by emotional and political forces than scientific ones. Show people a picture of sea turtle choaking on a straw to the tune of a Sarah McLachlan song, and it’s easy to see why plastics are public enemy #1 – it's destroying our earth and bio-accumulating in our bodies.
While I’m not a plastics apologist, I am not afraid to say that I think the war on plastics is a misguided one….. with very real consequences if we choose to rely on our emotions instead of what the science says. I will even take it a step further and say that I think that plastics have a vital role to play in creating a sustainable future, particularly with respect to packaging, food safety and food accessibility. Now before I am tarred and feathered, I will paraphrase the brilliant Chaz Miller who said “It’s complicated – part of the reputation surrounding plastics is deserved, but it has done a lot to make the world a better place”.
With this in mind, when I have conversations with friends and family about plastic waste, they are often surprised (and frustrated) that I am an opponent of plastic bans and tend to have a neutral view on the impacts (both positive and negative) of plastics as a whole. How can any self-respecting environmentalist be supportive of plastics, particularly singe use packaging?
The short answer is that people need it – I say that with genuine sincerity and am not trying to be dramatic for effect. I stress that I am not trying to diminish the environmental impacts of plastics and recognize that there are numerous environmental, economic and social impacts associated with its production. I also recognize that we have a broken system(s) that require a massive overhaul in order to achieve meaningful and enduring change. With that in mind, I prefer to think of myself as a “pragmatic environmentalist” – we must first work within the systems that we have, instead of calling for ones that yet to exist.
Can plastics actually help us minimize waste?
The role of plastics and plastic packaging in particular has always been a conflicted topic for me, as it raises several key issues: How much do we really understand about how product packaging affects end of life outcomes and its overall environmental impact? How much onus should be placed on an individual to make sustainable choices? And to what degree do people have economic agency in making purchasing decisions based on packaging design (or environmental impact as a whole)?
Conversations surrounding plastics and packaging waste often lack nuance, particularly in light of broader policy measures calling for single use plastic bans, or limits on plastics production. On aggregate, people have a propensity to view plastic and excess packaging as “bad”, particularly materials that possess low levels of recyclability. The vilification of plastics is why we have seen a concerted effort from both producers and consumers to abandon single use plastic packaging in favor of items that are perceived to be more sustainable – never in my life have more friends and family owned reusable metal straws.
When asked if I think this is a good thing, I often hesitate, cognizant that my answer is both a cop out and not what most people want to hear “It depends”. Not all plastics are created equal – it is a mantra I repeat time and time again to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, this point is often lost on both policy makers and consumers alike, who tend to (figuratively) lump all plastics into one category. This is particularly true of plastic packaging, which is often characterized as something that is undesirable and unwanted, with an end goal of eliminating plastic packaging all together. While many of the criticisms surrounding plastic packaging and its impact on the environment are not without merit, they often fail to acknowledge that plastic packaging plays a key role in reducing the amount of waste that we generate. While the latter part of that statement may seem like an oxymoron, it’s important to understand what drives the proliferation of plastic packaging and some of the advantages that plastics (and light weight plastics in particular) possess
- Ensure product and consumer safety, reducing the likelihood of damage, contamination or tampering
- Realize efficiencies in logistics and transportation - On average, plastic packaging is lighter relative to other packaging materials such as OCC/OBB, Glass and Steel. The lighter the load, the smaller the environmental footprint associated with transportation. Flexible plastics can also allow for a greater number of units that can be stored and transported, reducing the frequency of trips required (further reducing carbon impacts).
- Maximizing shelf life (both at the store and in the home). Plastic food packaging helps avoid food spoilage and can significantly extend the shelf life of produce and meats (this is particularly true of plastic food storage products like freezer bags).
- Allows for discretionary consumption –single use items provide consumers with greater flexibility with regards to purchasing and consuming only what they need. Newer plastic packaging formats can also be resealed/closed, further allowing for discretionary consumption as well as minimizing food waste. While it may seem silly to package an individual avocado, or have soup come in a re-sealable pouch, these packaging decisions are designed to allow for discretionary consumption (I consume only what I need) and avoiding food waste (through spoilage and source reduction).
Despite the challenges that plastic packaging poses with respect to recyclability, there is an argument that they result in superior environmental and economic outcomes when taking a life cycle approach. The danger of eliminating plastic packaging in favor of a more recyclable alternative (i.e. pasta sauce in a glass jar vs. sauce in a flexible plastic pouch), is that the environmental footprint of the former is significantly greater than the plastic packaging that we have deemed as “bad for the environment”
What would a world without plastic packaging look like?
If I were to close my eyes and imagine what a world without plastic packaging would look like, I would picture food deserts – millions of people with insufficient access to an affordable and stable supply of food. I often question the world view and privilege of those who call for bans on single use plastic packaging, as they clearly have never spent time in a developing economy where a lack of refrigeration makes plastic packaging a necessity. Nor have they considered the difficulty that those in remote and northern communities face with respect to accessing resources that simply are not available to these areas in the absence of plastic packaging.
Now, I know what many of you are thinking – the situation I am describing and the current state of affordable and equitable access to food is indicative of a broken system that I alluded to earlier. Contemporary food systems are designed in such a way that prioritize convenience and cost, with health and environmental impacts largely being secondary concerns. The proliferation of low cost nutrient poor packaged food is the byproduct of our insatiable appetite (both literal and figurative) for cheap and convenient foods from around the world. I want to emphasize the word “byproduct”, as increases in the generation of plastic packaging waste are the result of a broken food system, not the cause of it. Many experts have argued that not only is this model unsustainable, but food has ultimately become “too cheap” – after all, how on earth is it possible that we can ship produce half way around the world and still have it be cheaper than being locally grown?
These are all valid observations and my intent is not to rationalize packaging waste or adhere to the status quo – however, in light of the challenges that are a direct result of entrenched systems, what can we do to fix it? Is it practical, desirable or even possible to have a world without single use plastic packaging? A call to action to end our reliance on plastic packaging needs to be accompanied by clear and tangible next steps, with an understanding of what the implications of our choices are. Do we have an alternative? Is this alternative scalable, affordable and accessible? Do we have the infrastructure to help support a transition towards a reusable framework that can help weaken our dependence on single use plastics? Perhaps of greater importance is to know who are most affected by our decisions – there is a cost associated with any change (both moving away from plastics or embracing it) and we must understand who ultimately bares those costs (economically, environmentally and socially).
There is also the question of how far we are willing and able to go when it comes to systemic reform. As noted earlier, we are participants within a given system and as a result, must develop pragmatic solutions that acknowledge and work within the limitations imposed by said system. A world without plastics is only viable if there is a fundamental overhaul in how our economic and food systems work – something that may not be even possible in any sort of relevant time scale. This lack of systemic change is why I think jurisdiction specific limits on plastic production are largely ineffectual – you are addressing a symptom, and not the cause.
Plastics are a resource that need to be managed responsibly
Single use plastics and sustainability do not have to be mutually incompatible pursuits. It is imperative that we break out of this “good vs. bad” paradigm, and adopt an agnostic view when it comes to the role that plastics can play in a circular economy. Plastics are a resource like anything else, and the goal should be focused on promoting sustainable outcomes, using evidence and data to inform our decisions of how to most effectively utilize plastics. Emphasis should be placed on developing the infrastructure to recover and divert plastics and explore new technologies beyond mechanical recycling to help maximize the value of plastics as a resource. Imposing a blanket ban or arbitrary limits on plastic production does not take into consideration the pivotal role that plastics can potentially play in promoting sustainable economy, and it is imperative that we have a nuanced conversation surrounding the “how, why, when, where” of how they should be used moving forward. The war on plastics is doing an incredible disservice to meaningful conversations surrounding sustainability – while terms like “forever toxic” make for great headlines, they lack nuance and grossly oversimplify a complex issue that affects every single one of us.
Calvin Lakhan is currently co-investigator of the “Waste Wiki” project at York University (with Dr. Mark Winfield), a research project devoted to advancing understanding of waste management research and policy in Canada. Fore more info, see Calvin's earlier CBC article.