Plastic bans will not deliver sustainability

Plastic bans will not deliver sustainability
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Environmental activists are accusing plastics of being the next and newest contributor to climate change. The accusation’s gone politically mainstream: Boris Johnson is telling school children that recycling doesn’t work, Canada has effectively called plastic “toxic,” and Washington, D.C., has outlawed plastic straws — a move that will make drinking milkshakes unpleasant, if not impossible.

But there are two unavoidable problems with the idea of banning plastics.

First, manmade plastics — a new and novel material in the history of life on Earth — offer humans a vast array of benefits, as evidenced by the massive speed of their integration into the human material ecosystem. Since plastics’ invention, people have been eager to trade their labors for the relative ease afforded through plastics — de facto proof of their perceived benefits. Many of those benefits involve the direct protection of human health by providing superior hygiene, food preservation, physical protection, medical utility, and so on. Banning such plastics would, therefore, invariably compromise consumers’ well-being and would be strongly opposed by current users, which include essentially everyone. And, like banning other things people feel are valuable, banning plastics will generate resistance to and subversion of laws and regulations, creating a black market for the versatile material.

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Second, alternatives to plastics can have worse environmental impacts than plastics themselves. As I examine in a new report commissioned and published by the Plastics Industry Association, life cycle assessments comparing the environmental impacts of plastics and alternatives bear this out. Analyses comparing plastic grocery bags and cloth bags, or plastic drinking straws and paper drinking straws for example, have demonstrated that the substitute can do as much (or more) human and environmental harm than the plastics they replace. The most familiar example would be the “plastic grocery bag” war that raged pre-COVID. Several life cycle studies have shown that alternatives such as cloth, paper, or even degradable “bio-plastics,” have worse environmental impacts than your basic “single-use” plastic grocery bag or drinking straw.

Inevitably, people will ask, “So what should we do about plastic waste?” As with most things, the best alternative to eliminationist crusades is rational risk management. In the case of plastics, that means finding ways to reduce impacts on the environment, which means keeping things like greenhouse gases and plastic waste out of the environment as much as possible. And that means fixing what is currently a flawed framework of recycling, which stops far short of what is needed to fix the problems: the ultimate reclamation and reuse, of the fundamental (and profit-bearing!) matter and energy that is bound up in plastics when they are created. 

Though still in early development, technologies that can reclaim those basic matter and energy building blocks of plastics at the end of their useful life have been used for some time and have been steadily improving in their capabilities. Converting plastic waste to energy is probably the oldest such technology, and it has steadily improved in terms of reducing environmental side-effects (air pollution, mainly) to the environment. Newer advanced recycling technologies, such as chemical reclamation of the molecular building blocks of plastics show still more promise for fixing the fractured circle of recycling, and by adding profitability to the overall reclamation enterprise, fixing the inefficient economics of current-day recycling efforts at the same time.

Like every other material humans use, plastics offer benefits and risks. The challenge we face is managing those risks rationally, both as individual risks and as part of our broad portfolio of human and environmental risks. Banning individual risks indiscriminately, such as say, banning plastic drinking straws, is unlikely to help reduce risks to individuals, societies, or the environment. In fact, based on painful experience, such bans are likely to do more harm than good. 

Staying the course of safely weaving plastics into the tapestry of the human material ecosystem with better reclamation technologies and management systems is far more likely to produce a better ­­— and safer ­­— world than indiscriminate bans. And it’ll preserve the sublime pleasure of consuming an ice-cold milkshake on a hot summer’s day.

Kenneth Green is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Vancouver, Canada. For nearly 20 years, he’s studied public policy involving energy, risk, regulation, and the environment at public policy research institutions across North America including the American Enterprise Institute, Reason Foundation, and the Environmental Literacy Council. He holds a Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering from UCLA. His study of plastics and sustainability cited above was funded by the plastics industry.