People, not plastics, are the problem

Are polymeric substances in our oceans an issue? Yes.

Is the pollution on land arising from the so-called plastics a problem? No question.

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Should we ban them?


Over the years I have written these columns, I frequently find science and government policy intersecting. Climate change, fluoridation of drinking water, smart phones and any number of other issues government wants to address have a scientific component. The issue of plastics is certainly one of them.

Last week, our prime minister proposed a ban on "single use plastics." It certainly sounds like a great idea. Do we really need things wrapped in plastic or utilizing a material which we are then going to throw out?

This is particularly the case where the polymers or plastics are finding their way into the environment and impacting wildlife. Video of a sea turtle having a drinking straw removed from its nasal passage or bird carcasses containing whiteboard markers make for very disturbing images. The Great Pacific Gyre, with its islands of plastics floating on the surface, or the prospects of micro-plastics infused into the food chain would seem to indicate we have gone too far.

Except simply banning single use plastics leads to all sorts of other problems and issues. Yes, I can do without a straw and drinking directly from a glass. Or use a paper straw. Or even a re-useable metal cylinder. But at what cost?

One of the reasons plastic straws, bags and containers are so plentiful is because they are so cheap to make. And perhaps more importantly, they use fewer chemicals while generating fewer emissions.

If we consider the energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from making, say, a paper straw, they are considerably higher than making a comparable straw from polyethylene. Stainless steel straws consume way more than either paper or plastic in their production.

Many years ago, one of my professors at UVic analyzed the energy costs and chemical consumption required to make various forms of drinking vessels - Styrofoam coffee cups, paper cups, glass and ceramic mugs, metal containers. It turns out a single ceramic mug generates 1,500 times the carbon dioxide as a Styrofoam cup.

Put another way, you could use 1,499 Styrofoam cups and still be more carbon friendly than using a ceramic mug. And that is assuming you never wash the ceramic mug. But others might say Styrofoam cups add to our landfills and we now know they are getting into our waterways and eventually into our oceans. From a pure mass point of view, the 1,500 Styrofoam cups are a problem. The question is - which problem are we trying to solve? Carbon dioxide in our atmosphere? Polymers in our landscape and wildlife?

Paper is often touted as the more reasonable alternative but it takes a long time to grow trees and consumption of paper results in large scale deforestation. We live in a town for which pulp production is a critical component of our economy but there are many people worried about the long term viability of our fibre supply. What do we do then?

At the core of the issue is something called life-cycle analysis. Proper analyses take a long time to complete and sometime miss important variables or components - mostly because the data hasn't been researched yet.

As an example, if we do want to trap carbon and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, then burying plastics in landfills is a good way to deal with this. The material will act as a sink for the carbon for well over 1,000 years. No carbon dioxide. No methane. Does it make sense to ban plastics if they will remove carbon from the environment?

But the data on just how long it takes each of the different types of polymers to breakdown and under what conditions is not yet available. Indeed, because every landfill is unique, accurate data may never be available. We will just need to go with averages and suppositions.

Banning single-use plastics does appear to make sense but a better approach would be to ensure all plastic materials are used and disposed of in appropriate fashion.

I was travelling recently and while sitting in an airport waiting area I watched a man finish up a chocolate bar. He then dropped the wrapper to the ground. There were garbage cans five metres in front of him but he couldn't be bothered to carry his waste that far.

The issue isn't really single-use plastics. It is living in a society where we do not feel responsible for our waste. If we were all much more conscious about what we buy and how we dispose of things, many of our problems might disappear.

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