Can we live without plastic?

The short answer is no, but in line with all environmental issues, it is complicated and takes political will to find solutions.

Thanks to the recent Blue Planet TV series, there has been a welcome increase in the awareness of plastic pollution. Even Michael Gove is reported to be “haunted” by images of plastic polluting the world's oceans. Such responses are welcome but only if they lead to action.

At first sight, the omens don't look promising. Over recent years, our use of plastics of all kinds has rocketed and things are about to get much worse. ExxonMobil Chemical and Shell Chemical are currently planning investments that will help to increase plastic production by 40% and we have already produced more disposable plastics over the last decade than in the whole of the twentieth century.

There have been successes: the levy on single use plastic bags was eventually adopted and has resulted in a huge decline in their use. But there are many other areas where action is becoming more urgent. Plastic drinks bottles, plasticated single use coffee cups and many more such items have become everyday objects to be discarded and left to litter our towns and countryside and, all too often, end up in the oceans.

Plastic has become a symbol as well as a fact of our throw-away society but if we make plastic the enemy, we can easily lose sight of its good qualities. Plastic packaging does help to preserve and protect food and, as a consequence, reduces food waste.

Plastic components are to be found in just about everything we use. It is literally embedded in our lives but, like the hydrocarbons from which it is derived, it is a limited resource. As the oil and gas industries decline, so too will the availability of plastic.

While every one of us can resolve to use less plastic packaging and bottles, we need concrete incentives from government, such as the bag levy, to encourage responsible use and action from industry to fund research into more benign alternatives.

We also need proper collection and reprocessing close to home. Too often it has been a case of out of sight, out of mind. The recent decision by China to stop taking mountains of our waste is actually a longer term opportunity. We need to design products with their end of use in mind at the outset, not an afterthought or something not even thought about at all.

This is the lasting solution to the plastics problem. Along with all waste and pollution issues, the solution is not to be found at a product's end of life but at the design stage. We need to design products with their eventual disassembly, reuse and recycling as an intrinsic part of the product itself. This will also affect our own behaviour and help all of us become responsible users not abusers of what is, in fact, an amazing and versatile set of materials. Plastic should be seen as a precious resource that needs to be handled with care, not one that can simply be discarded. After all, it comes back to haunt us so we must all take responsibility for its use. 

Howard Porter is chair of Tonbridge & Malling Green Party

This column first appeared in the Times of Tonbridge 7th February 2018

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