Plastic friend or foe

Posted by on Sep 17, 2018 in Plastic, Sustainability
Plastic friend or foe

Hardly a day goes by without someone mentioning single use plastic – whether it’s a large corporate announcing they are single use bottles in the canteen, a major retailer axing take away coffee cups or a school declaring itself a plastic free site – the focus on single use plastic continues. Just type #single use plastic into twitter and you encounter a tsunami of tweets on the subject. So does this obsession with plastic herald a sea change in our attitude to waste and recycling or are we just sweating the small stuff and losing sight of the overall picture? If we can’t tackle the really big sources of waste in supply chains and packaging then worrying about straws down the pub is missing the point – or is it?

I would argue that plastic straws are indicators if we are prepared to take small steps to cut down waste we will all soon become so addicted to banning plastic and other pollutants that we will begin to demand change and action across the board – from our employers, our local authorities and our suppliers – especially the supermarket. The stats around plastic packaging are well known to many but still worth repeating. The retail sector accounts for 40% of plastic in production and half of that is used for food and drink packaging. That’s right 20% of all plastic in use today is put around our food in some form. And while we are on statistics here’s another – of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic manufactured since the 1950’s only 9% has been recycled. Depressing isn’t it?

But not all plastic is the same – Sian Sutherland, co-founder A Plastic Planet, a self-confessed plastic addict, put it nicely when she said lets ‘put plastic back on its pedestal’ and celebrate this wonder material. We cannot, and should not, eradicate plastic from our life – it is a wonder material. Cheap, (economically if not environmentally) to manufacture, hard wearing and adaptable. Plastic has revolutionised modern life and we are in many ways better off for its existence.

Plastic is a precious resource. You have only to sit in a hospital A&E department, as I did the other night with my daughter who was admitted for a suspected case of meningitis, to see this miracle product in action. The sterile swab came in plastic, the sterile needle used to take the blood sample came in plastic, the cannula in her arm and the tube that fed her the intravenous antibiotics were plastic and wrapped in plastic; the sterile bags that the antibiotics dripped out of were plastic. I sat there at 3.30 am watching her sleep thinking thank heaven for plastic: malleable, sterile and potentially life saving. It may have been lack of sleep or worry that also made me wonder as the nurse disposed of the waste in the ‘medical waste bin’ whether any of this plastic was being recycled? Old habits die hard!

So, there is a place for plastic but that place is not shrink wrapped round broccoli or sloshing about in our rivers and oceans. Let’s save it for a proper purpose and carry on worrying about the straws – small steps lead to great strides and together we can turn back the tide.