Plastic is now so prolific in modern life that one scientist has declared earth is in the “plastic age”, with the remnants of our wasteful habit predicted to be fossilised for millions of years to come.
Awareness of plastic’s downsides are at an all time high, thanks to shows like the recent BBC documentary Drowning In Plastic, and studies that have shown the impact on oceans, sea life and even the human food chain.
But why did we all fall in love with plastic in the first place, what purpose does it serve and what are the best alternatives? We asked experts to explain.
Why do we use plastic?
“It’s really difficult to imagine a world without plastic,” Debbie Hitchen, a director at sustainability consultancy Anthesis, told HuffPost UK.
“The growth that we’ve seen in plastics over the past four or five decades is really down to the fact that it can be used in so many different ways and it has benefits to lots of things – in terms of product protection, the way it can be shaped, the ease to which it can be transported and cost.”
Plastic has played a huge role in driving down food waste for example, she says, because it helps keep the produce in your fridge fresher for longer.
Take a cucumber you buy at the supermarket. “The reason it was sheathed in plastic in the first place was to increase its shelf life,” says Hitchen. “If you think about what goes into making a cucumber, it takes water, energy, heat. It’s been transported in a vehicle that probably burns fossil fuels. So there’s actually quite a high carbon footprint associated with that product. If you can enhance the life of it by 10, 12 or 20 days by putting some plastic on it, the argument is: if you take the plastic off, you throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Asked why plastics are useful, Professor Matthew Davidson, director of Bath University’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies says: “Well, they’re sort of remarkable materials, really. They’re lighter, cheaper, more effective than any of the alternatives – whether it’s for packaging or engineering.”
Is all plastic bad?
Many campaigners would argue that we need to bring an end to the use of plastics full stop. Even the The British Plastics Federation – the trade association for the plastics industry – acknowledges that plastic can have a “devastating impact” on the environment if not dealt with properly. Though it also argues plastic isn’t the problem, but what happens with it after use.
According to Debbie Hitchen, not all plastic is bad: it reduces food waste, takes less energy to transport than the alternatives and can be re-used and recycled, meaning it does have a useful role to play, she says. Glass, for example, is a heavier and more fragile material and paper requires trees to be cut down.
“A lot of marine litter appears in places where there’s insufficient [recycling] infrastructure – we have people who litter on beaches or by rivers, and then plastic ends up in the UK’s waterways. But the majority of the problems are actually in places with less developed recycling and that’s where the problem starts,” says Hitchen.
Can all plastic be recycled?
This is a complicated one to answer because it depends on a lot of factors, not least where you live. In the UK, each council has its own recycling rules.
Once your recycling makes its way to a plant, Hitchen explains, the waste will be sorted through to determine what can be recycled. There’s a hierarchy of value when it comes to plastic waste. Something like a plastic milk bottle is generally held up as a “good” plastic, as it can be easily recycled. “Clear bottles in their own right without coloured lids have a higher value in the supply chain. Take clear bottles, for example, they might go on to become a fibre or a yarn for the clothing sector. You can put any dye into that.” Whereas colour changes the grade of the plastic “as it’s on a second lifespan.”
Some plastic items, especially those made of more than one material – like crisp packets and coffee cups and many children’s plastic toys – are currently impossible to recycle. Even if the technology exists, the infrastructure hasn’t caught up with it.
Unless it’s recycled the plastic will go alongside other household waste and either get burned for energy, or make its way to landfill. This is particularly problematic in countries where there is a lack of recycling infrastructure.
Are there sustainable alternatives?
Some companies are taking steps to experiment with compostable materials or in extending the lifecycle of plastics.
Take the Co-op supermarket, for example, which is phasing out plastic bags with a compostable alternative, or Adidas – which has a line of trainers made partly out of plastic waste. Entrepreneurs have also developed bottle free water which comes in an edible pop and can be drunk on the go.
But these solutions are not widespread and Professor Matthew Davidson thinks there needs to be more progress.
“I think there will always be leakage [of plastics] into the environment and for that reason I think we need to develop – and we’re quite capable of developing new materials that degrade when they’re not wanted. It’s a huge technical challenge but it’s not an insurmountable one,” he says.
There could also be unintended consequences of swapping out plastics for untested alternatives, warns the British Plastics Federation. “The plastics industry, government, brands, retailers and consumers all have a part to play in ensuring plastic no longer finds its way into the sea,” says director general, Philip Law.