Plastic has changed the world. The low-cost and versatile material has saved millions of lives by bringing sterile single-use equipment to health centers and making it possible to store food safely. At the same time, it has played a significant part in creating a global throwaway society, in which we easily forget the lifespans of the goods we use.
Campaigns encouraging climate action, such as plastic-free months along with the Zero Waste lifestyle trend, have mobilized people worldwide. In 2021, a ban on certain single-use plastics products entered into force in the EU. To avoid the environmental effects of plastic, Sweden and Great Britain have banned microplastics in certain cosmetic products, and the use of plastic microbeads in wash-off cosmetics has already been radically reduced in Europe – it has gone down by 82% between 2012–2015 (Gouin et al., 2015). In the case of plastics, the worry about the effects on the environment and people’s health has evoked citizens to act towards a common goal, resulting in changed legislation.
However, despite the growing concern about the climate impact and other environmental effects of plastics, the problem is more about how we use the material than the material itself.
Plastic is a versatile and useful material. It can be forged into complicated forms, even in extremely thin layers. It protects our food and medicine from their surroundings, and plastics are used in bypass surgeries, pacemakers, blood test and IV equipment; in kevlar vests that protect policemen from bullets and in bicycle helmets and seat belts. (World Economic Forum, 2018)
Even though many of these functions could technically be performed by other materials, no competing material is yet as cheap, as suitable (it’s taken decades of material design and research to get plastics there) and as readily available as different forms of plastics are. Disinfected surgery equipment would become a luxury only available to the very richest should we ban all plastics use tomorrow.
Climate-wise, plastic outperforms many other materials. The low price of plastics in comparison with, e.g., metal means that solar panels, for instance, can be produced at a lower cost. The electrical components and switches can be made out of hard technical plastics that are cheaper to produce, lighter to transport (hence saving greenhouse gas emissions when replacing heavier materials) and more durable in use than their metal counterparts would be. When technical plastics substitute metals or cement, the process emissions from producing these materials are avoided altogether – which is a big deal since producing these materials is extremely greenhouse gas intensive.
Plastic packaging of food saves both resources and emissions by reducing food waste. We often sigh with resignation at the number of plastics wrapped around the food in grocery stores, but sometimes it does fill a purpose. Globally, food waste causes 4.4 gigatonnes of CO2-eq yearly, corresponding to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO, 2015). Not all of the waste is due to food going bad, but plastic packaging that can help reduce this number is still good for the climate. A packaged product has a longer shelf lifetime, increasing the chances of being sold and eaten before it goes bad.
Finally, plastic is one of the easiest materials to recycle. It can simply be melted and reformed. So why is plastic still a problem?
First of all, only one-third of the plastics in the EU find their way into the recycling bins, and too much ends up in our oceans instead. This is bad design on a system level: any material that can easily blow away and is too cheap to pick up off the street and recycle should not be used in single-use products. Ideally, all materials used in cases with a high probability of ending up in nature should be fully biodegradable and harmless to the environment. In the case of straws, plastic cups, bags and the likes, it is necessary to find good alternatives to plastic quickly. However, the biggest issue is not necessarily what materials we consume but how we consume them.
Apart from polluting our oceans, cheap plastic products have supported an increase in consumption. By replacing rare and expensive materials, plastic has made it possible for producers and manufacturers to keep up with rising demand while keeping costs down. In its early days, plastics contributed to breaking down social boundaries and the uneven distribution of natural resources: “Plastics promised a material utopia, available to all” (Freinkel, 2011).(Freinkel, 2011).
Today, we live in a society where products seem to appear on shop shelves and disappear into garbage bins after only a few times of usage. It’s easy to grab a smoothie packed in plastic and throw the empty package away once we’ve drunk it 7 minutes later. And this doesn’t apply to just plastics. In a throwaway society, it’s socially acceptable and economically possible to buy things we don’t need, of bad quality, and with an invisible production chain, just to throw them away whenever we feel like it.
We, therefore, welcome conscious consumption initiatives such as the Zero Waste lifestyle and Plastic Free months and view them as invitations to question this way of consuming rather than as direct campaigns against one particular material. These movements are fantastic because they encourage us to pay attention to what we buy and do with it after we use it.
As such, initiatives that tackle plastics usage have the power to not just ban one material, but to change the entire consumption culture.
Most plastic packages can be recycled, and if that is not possible, they can be burned to produce heat in so-called waste-to-energy power plants. In the EU, 31% of the collected plastic waste is recycled, 42% is burned for energy recovery, and 27% is placed in landfills. 10 European countries, including all Nordic countries, have banned plastics in landfills altogether. (PlasticsEurope, 2018.)
Despite this, only 40% of Finnish people recycle all or almost all of their plastics.
There has been a lot of talk about microplastics in cosmetics and personal care products lately, but that is only a small source of global microplastic pollution. It is, however, one that is easy for consumers to avoid. Look for natural alternatives on the shelves!
The washing of textiles is a much larger source of microplastics, which we can also impact directly. Clothes made of synthetic materials release microplastics in the washing machine. We can prevent that by, for example, investing in a washing bag that filters out microfibers during washing, preventing them from being released into the oceans.
Caption: Most microplastics originate from the wear of tyres, so if we want to make both our oceans and the climate a service, try less driving!
We often sigh with resignation at the amount of plastics wrapped around the food in grocery stores, but sometimes it does fill a purpose. Globally, food waste causes 4.4 gigatonnes of CO2-eq every year, corresponding to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO, 2015). Not all of the waste is due to food going bad, but plastic packaging that can help reduce this number is still good for the climate. However, enough is enough – no product needs double wrapping.
Avoiding single-use products can be a good idea, but switching those to multiple keep cups and tote bags doesn’t serve the purpose. E.g., stainless steel, used in drinking bottles and other reusable products, which has a high carbon-footprint. Cotton cultivation is associated with various negative environmental and social impacts, e.g., water scarcity (WWF, 2013). As such, reusable doesn’t automatically equal climate-friendly. Try to buy only the things you need and handle them with care.
Editor's note: This blogpost was originally published in March 2019 and has been revamped for and updated for for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Want to know how you and your organisation can become part of the solution to climate change? Spark Sustainability uses data on climate emissions to boost climate competence, builds climate-aware cultures within organisations and engages with employees and other stakeholders.
Gouin et al, 2015
World Economic Forum, 2018