Recently, I had the pleasure of giving a guest lecture to a group of Fleming College students enrolled in the waste management program. It's always so exciting to see how many young and curious minds are entering the space - the future of waste management research is a bright one.
As part of my lecture, I posed the question "Are single use plastics bad?". Virtually everyone raised their hand. I then surprised the class by saying that I don't think single use plastics or plastics in general are bad - in fact, they play a critical role in promoting sustainable outcomes. The confusion and dismay were palpable.
The war on plastics over the past decade has warped and distorted the perception of plastic, particularly among the public. We are inundated with calls to action to end the use of plastic, and it has become the environmental bogeyman of our generation – clogging water ways, disrupting endocrine development, and killing adorable sea turtles. However, conversations surrounding plastics and packaging waste often lack nuance, particularly in light of broader policy measures calling for single use plastic bans.
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.
But what if I told you that not all plastics are created equal, and that in many instances, the alternatives to single use packaging are inferior technically, economically, and environmentally? While alternatives to plastic packaging such as bio-based resins have gained significant traction in recent years (i.e. compostable PLA based coffee pods), the vast majority of single use plastic packaging does not have a direct substitute. To quote a colleague from SPRING, we don't have a plastics problem - we have a plastic waste management problem. I would actually take it a step further and say “We don’t have a waste management problem, we have a lifestyle problem.”
Operating within systemic constraints
The truth is, plastics are entrenched in our daily lives, and they are not going anywhere anytime soon. Our markets and modes of consumption are configured for single use, which ultimately impedes efforts to prioritize reuse or alternatives to single use plastic packaging. In many ways, choice is illusory, and no amount of legislation and calls to action will change the fact that we live in a system designed around single use consumption. Contemporary food systems in particular 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.
In light of these 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. 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 single use plastics or embracing it) and we must understand who ultimately bares those costs (economically, environmentally and social).
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.
Equity, Accessibility and the Benefits of Plastic Packaging
One could also make a fairly compelling argument that single use plastics are necessary in some instances (particularly as it pertains to food packaging), and plays a critical role in achieving sustainable and equitable outcomes. Plastics help promote product safety, durability, shelf life, discretionary consumption and overall package light-weighting. The latter point is particularly important, as light-weighting helps achieve waste reduction – the first and most important R in the reduce, reuse, recycle waste management hierarchy.
The issue of equity and access is also a critical but neglected dimension of the single use plastics conversation. For anyone that has ever called for the elimination of single use plastics, I would encourage them to go to a remote area or spend time in a developing economy. For some communities, the use of plastic packaging isn’t a choice, but a necessity. Lack of access, distance to markets, lack of refrigeration, sanitation concerns, product shelf life etc. are all very real challenges that single use plastics can help address. Even if we set aside the fact that the way we consume and what we consume is centered on single use, there are economic barriers that can also impede an individual’s ability to opt for alternatives to plastic packaging. The vast majority of alternatives to single use plastic packaging comes at a premium – one which many people simply can’t afford. Economic barriers to access speaks to broader issues associated with environmental affluism, equity and inclusiveness, but generally speaking, calls to ban plastic packaging often fail to address the socio-economic impacts of doing so.
What are we trying to achieve?
Single use plastics and sustainability do not have to be mutually incompatible pursuits. Our goal should be focused on promoting sustainable outcomes, using evidence and data to inform our decisions and policy. Emphasis should be placed on developing the infrastructure to recover and divert single use plastics, and explore new technologies beyond mechanical recycling to help maximize the value of plastics as a resource. A blanket ban on single use plastics does not take into consideration the pivotal role that plastics plays in a sustainable economy, and it is imperative that we have a nuanced conversation surrounding the “how, why, when, where” they should be used moving forward.