The everyday value of plastic

by Nicole Garofano

The surge of plastic-related stories in the media over the past couple of years, catalysed by the ‘Blue Planet II effect’, has made mismanaged plastic one of the highest profile environmental concerns of our time. The bad press the term ‘plastic’ has received has led to bans being announced, particularly on single-use products (e.g. plastic bags, straws, and disposable coffee cups), in locations as diverse as India, Barbados and Canada, as well as the EU. While these may be the items that news stories focus on, they are far from being the best ambassadors for the overall value of this ubiquitous material to our lives.

After three years of researching a range of polymers, referred to in this article as ‘plastic’, particularly for food and beverage use, plastic has become such an integral part of the modern world that to “ban plastic”, in the true sense of all plastic and not just single-use items, would mean fundamentally changing our way of life – and could lead to some unexpected consequences. While some would argue that such a change is necessary, the majority of people probably don’t realise how much plastic contributes to daily existence.

A day in the plastic life

When we pause to think about the myriad roles plastic plays in our lives, we can start to appreciate just how ingrained it really is, particularly in developed economies. For example: you may wake up in the morning on a mattress that has threads made of polyester, before turning on your bedroom light, ensconced in plastic fixtures, using a plastic switch connected to electrical wires encased in plastic protective covering.

For breakfast, you may use a cooker with plastic knobs and a Teflon coated frying pan to cook food from plastic packaging and use a plastic covered kettle to make a cup of tea. Dressing for work, you may put on clothes made of polyester textiles, and plastic lined shoes and then you may travel to work in a vehicle that has plastic bumpers, plastic seats and plastic components. And the day continues…

The moral to the story, of course, is that plastic is used across all aspects of our lives.

Exploding plastic inevitable?

Plastics Europe estimates that global annual plastic production grew from 1.7 million tonnes in 1950 to at least 348 million tonnes in 2017. This staggering growth is indicative of the large number of uses for which plastics have been tailored. The chart below shows their estimate of the share of plastics used across different sectors in the European market.

While media attention on plastic packaging is hardly misplaced, with some 40% of plastic used for this purpose, the chart gives a greater appreciation of how plastic is used in other aspects of daily life.

Percentage of total plastic consumption (EU28+NO/CH). Source: Plastics Europe.

Plastic is used widely because it brings advantages - it contributes to cost effectiveness in the building and construction industries, as well as in the automotive industry, where it improves efficiencies in car manufacture due to its lightweight nature. Plastic water pipes channel water to homes and businesses. It provides safe medical equipment, reducing the likelihood of infection. And plastic is integral to the digital technology we have become so dependent upon in the form of phones and computers.

On the other hand, when plastic is mismanaged, or leaks into the natural environment, the implications can be horrendous. One report suggests that, measured by weight, as much as 70% of floating macroplastic debris on the open ocean is fishing-related.

The increase in plastic’s use for food and beverage packaging is due to a range of trends:

- Products are being sold in smaller pack sizes, rather than in bulk, leading to more packaging needed overall. This is driven by a decline in the average number of people per household (with more single-parent and one person households), as well as low economic capacity in developing nations where products are more ‘buy-as-needed’.

- Food waste reduction goals have led to packaging innovations that call for plastic packaging.

- There is increased demand for pre-prepared meals, both in developed and emerging economies, reflecting higher levels of income and demand from time-poor consumers for greater convenience.

- Increased consumer awareness of the physical health implications of products has led to, for example, increased bottled water consumption (in some cases over soft drinks) and an increase in packaged fresh foods such as those found in supermarkets.

- The use of packaging by manufacturers to create a marketing edge over the competition by innovating packaging styles, shapes and types

There are real advantages of plastic for producers, but which uses should be considered ‘necessary’ and which ‘unnecessary’?

Package deal

For food products, the line between ‘necessary’ and ‘unnecessary’ plastic is particularly blurred. A recent study by RMIT for the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance of 10 food products shows that the use of packaging, including plastic, delivers several benefits including protection of food from farm gate to retailer, management of gas respiration to extend shelf life, flexible applications, and reduction in damage to products. It is difficult to balance priorities between packaging reduction and product longevity.

In some cases these benefits could be considered necessary to reduce food waste, where plastic improves the use of resources by bringing more of the ‘value’ of inputs from farm to consumption while helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, some products and their packaging might be questionable. For example, can it really be regarded as necessary to spend carbon on transporting half-empty bags of crisps that have been padded-out with nitrogen?

Going beyond food, plastics can have benefits across a variety of applications, helping to reduce  environmental costs associated with production and transport – although these need to be weighed against their potential negative impacts.

Plastic progress

None of this is to deny that the mismanagement of end-of-life plastic causes serious environmental damage; or that the manufacture of plastic – primarily derived from fossil fuels – has significant carbon impacts. Rather, it is to suggest that we should be realistic about recognising where plastic provide genuine value, and in such cases focus on how we can be most resource efficient in their production and capture at end of life.

Packaging directives such as the EU 2019/904, the UK’s Plastic Pact, and the Australian 2020 National Packaging Targets all apply circular economy principles, as promoted by the Ellen McArthur Foundation and others. They aim to reduce or improve plastic use at the design end of product supply, through to improving outcomes post-consumption. This is important because, as the Ellen McArthur Foundation estimates: “without fundamental redesign and innovation, about 30% of plastic packaging will never be reused or recycled”.

We are also seeing industry make investments in a number of alliances to support the prevention, or at least capture at source, of plastic which would otherwise be leaked into the natural environment. The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Trash Free Seas and Circulate Capital are all examples of major multinational brands partnering with civil society with the goal of reducing their own plastic footprints while also supporting projects across the globe.

Plastic principles

Plastic production remains set to rise – by some estimates as much as four fold by 2050 – driven both by demand and the strategies of fossil fuel companies looking to switch to plastic manufacture as energy and heating are decarbonised. It will be important to be clear about just how much plastic we need, and make firm distinctions between necessary and unnecessary applications, so as to make plastic use more effective and efficient. To do this, we need to develop a firmer grasp on the considerations that might play into such decisions.

The management of this ubiquitous and adaptable material will be critical in making the best value of plastic, and to reduce its entry into our natural environment. Policy is one way to manage how we engage with plastic, and for many uses, this will be the most effective tool. However, as consumers we can make decisions to reduce plastic use where we can. We can also get better at ensuring the plastic we use is captured for the benefit of future industries.

By being more aware of the value of plastic in our everyday lives, we can make a more informed and worthwhile contribution to the debate. And, as consumers, we can make more reasonable demands of manufacturers, and call them out with greater authority when we see plastic use which is truly unnecessary.