Plastic has been given a really bad name. There is too much of it and it either takes too long to decompose or does not decompose at all. However, it turns out that it is less harmful to the environment than many alternative forms of packaging. Time to reassess the situation.
The demonization of plastic is everywhere. You can't escape it even in the high-rise offices of Deutsche Bank. In a protected nature reserve on the Mexican coast, artist Gabriel Orozco has collected objects washed up on the shore and photographed them. Although the water along this part of the coast is actually meant to be reserved for whales, hard hats, buttons and plastic bottles have been washed up here – enough to create large photo collages which now hang in the offices of Deutsche Bank. They were created back in 2012.
These days, the discovery of whales on beaches all over the world that have died as a result of bundles of plastic blocking their stomach is a regular occurrence for conservation organizations. No-one can fail to be moved by such images. And Europe has taken action as a result: supermarkets are no longer handing out free plastic bags to their customers, the European Union has banned plastic drinking straws and if consumers come across cucumbers that are wrapped in cling film anywhere, the seller is almost certain to get a serious complaint made against him. Plastic gets all the blame.
'We are not helping the seas by no longer using plastic in countries
with an efficient waste disposal system.' • Fredy Dinkel from Carbotech
It's time for a reply. For plastic is not that harmful to the environment – and anyone who rejects plastic without thinking and opts for alternatives will often cause even more serious damage to the environment.
It is true that plastic causes problems. The fact that plastic in the sea does not decompose and instead forms ever-increasing islands of waste in the water and piles on beaches is only the most obvious consequence. For instance, often not enough care is taken with regard to the environment during the extraction of oil. Plastic particles from tires, fibers from textiles and shower gels are not completely filtered out in treatment systems and turn up in sewage water in the form of microplastic. Ultimately, there is a risk of those particles ending up in the food that we eat.
But plastic also has numerous benefits. However over the past few months, they have been engulfed by a wave of anger and drowned in the debate that has been going on. Environmental consultants Carbotech calculates the impact that Swiss government bodies, cantons and companies have on the environment. The company analyses the level of impact that materials used have on the environment throughout the supply chain, from production to waste processing. 'Over the past twenty years, the plastics industry has slept through various environmental issues', admits senior partner Fredy Dinkel from Carbotech. However, he makes a stand for plastic. 'We must get a better grasp of marine pollution. But in countries like Switzerland, the system for disposing of waste works very well. We are not helping the seas by no longer using plastic here.'
The price of glass
Dinkel praises plastics: 'In many respects, plastic has excellent properties which are good for the environment. Also, glass doesn't just grow on trees – a considerable amount of energy is used during both the manufacture and the recycling of glass.'
In fact, the glass manufacturing process is not particularly environmentally-friendly. Admittedly, it is easy to recycle but, in the process, the material is heated to more than one thousand degrees. Naturally, there are other types of bottles besides disposable ones. A lot of glass bottles are returnable so that they can be reused but then they have to be rinsed out with hot water first. On top of that, there is transportation which requires a lot of energy because glass is so heavy. Because of that, even the Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU) recommends people to buy drinks in plastic returnable bottles rather than glass bottles in view of the impact on the environment.
Sometimes, plastic is replaced by paper which means that trees have to be cut down and chopped up, then the pulp is steeped in cubic meters of water to which chemicals are added. A significant amount of resources and energy are used during the production process at the end of which a heat source is then used to dry the paper. According to the Federal Environment Agency, it takes as much energy to manufacture a ton of paper as it does to produce a ton of steel – including the furnaces. That means that when parents send children home with a goody bag made of paper rather than plastic after a child's birthday party, all that they are doing is making themselves feel good and perhaps impressing the other parents. They are not benefiting the global climate or the environment.
90% of the plastic in the world's seas comes from ten rivers in Asia and Africa.
Many environmentalists are afraid that there is also European plastic that is being exported to Asia for recycling.
Even the plastic bag – which has a particularly bad reputation and has already been banned from many supermarkets – can be functional. These are the signals coming from Denmark which is not exactly the home of the industrial lobby. The Danish environmental authority has spent the past year comparing how environmentally-friendly different types of bags are throughout their life cycle. The result: in many cases, the simple plastic bag is the most environmentally-friendly. The manufacture of a paper bag is such a laborious process that it has to be reused up to 43 times before it is as environmentally-friendly as a plastic bag – depending on what type of environmental damage you are looking at.
Even the reusable plastic bags made from recycled PET have to be reused 84 times for all the environmental damage to be compensated – which equates to a period of about one year. However, a bag made from organic cotton is worse: this type has to be reused no less than 149 times in order to compensate for the damage to the environment – or 20,000 times when you consider the use of land and water consumption involved.
Why is plastic so often a good choice? Plastics can be extremely lightweight and strong. Consequently, less energy is used during the transportation of the packaged products. In addition, less energy and water are required during the manufacture of plastic packaging. What is more, the oil used to produce plastic is no longer that scarce – after all, for a long time now scientists have been warning that not all of the known oil stocks should be used to produce petrol: it's harmful for the climate.
Ultimately, plastic even helps to combat another major environment polluter: food waste. Yogurt in glass packaging is often sold in quantities of more than half a liter. Not everyone gets through that amount of yogurt before it goes off. Small portions of yogurt are often only cost-effective in plastic pots, says Benedikt Kauertz from the Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung in Heidelberg: in the case of small portions of yogurt, the glass is sometimes almost heavier than the contents.
Plastic film often provides even better protection for vegetables and fruit than their own skin or shell. Cucumbers in plastic may be considered disgusting but this type of packaging makes sense: without packaging, cucumbers will start to shrivel after a few days. In plastic film, they can last for two to three weeks. Without packaging, apples keep for two weeks – with packaging, they keep for at least four.
Benedikt Kauertz points out that trade itself uses up a bit of that time by storing goods for longer and transporting them further. At the same time, he also says: 'As a rule, the wastage of food is always more harmful to the environment than the packaging. Then there is the fact that in many families today, both parents work and grow or cook less than used to be the case. That lifestyle is not going to change much either.'
There are shops selling food which are almost totally plastic-free. Milena Glimbovski is the initiator of the first packaging-free shop in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, where customers can use their own bags or jars to take their purchases home in. Some people have made drawstring bags out of old pieces of fabric which they can use to carry rice and other dry goods in.
By doing this, most products which are not in packaging are, in fact, more environmentally-friendly than the ones that are, a study has shown. But it is not always possible to transport a product in this way. So tofu has now been taken off the shelves, explains owner Glimbovski, because she was unable to offer it in a more environmentally-friendly way than other shops. Even she now believes that plastic per se is not always bad. 'You should ask yourself whether actions will just make you feel good about yourself or whether they will actually help the environment,' she says.
'The wastage of food is always more harmful than the packaging'
• Benedikt Kauertz, Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung
What recommendation can you give to people who want to make the world a little bit better in daily life? A very simple one: regulate your use of plastic!
Naturally, you can consider avoiding plastic packaging in general. Bananas don't need to be packaged in plastic. If you drink water from the tap, there is no bottle or the hassle that goes with it. If you take a rucksack with you when you go shopping, you don't need to take a plastic bag – but these days, the vast majority of consumers are already doing that. However, no-one needs to avoid plastic under all circumstances: if, despite all good intentions, you forget to take your rucksack with you when you go shopping, ask for a plastic bag and use it to put rubbish in at home.
In this context, it can be said that waste plastic that is disposed of properly is a minor problem for the environment. It is plastic in the environment that is a major problem. In many European countries, the waste disposal process has now been organized properly, says Sébastien Humbert of Swiss environmental consultancy Quantis. 'In those countries, plastic doesn't end up in the sea.' 90 per cent of the plastic in the world's seas comes from ten rivers in Asia and Africa. Many environmentalists are afraid that there is also European plastic that is being exported to Asia for recycling. But that is unlikely, thinks Humbert: recyclable plastic is a valuable product and is not casually thrown in the river.
"Plastic even helps to combat another"
major environment polluter: food waste
Recycling is good but waste incineration is also not always bad: after all, with this method packaging is always still able to be used to produce heat or electricity. And incinerated plastic certainly doesn't end up in the sea. 'So don't simply dismiss plastic out of hand,' says Humbert. 'If you do that, it is replaced by glass which is worse.'
However in particular, Humbert recommends avoiding all plastic when you are on holiday in countries where waste treatment is poor. 'Do that if you are traveling in China or Thailand or if you are in Greece. In a country where waste disposal is poor, the plastic that you generate in a week can undo all the good that you have done during the rest of the year at home.'
So anyone wanting to do something extremely practical to combat plastic pollution in our seas can pick up any plastic waste they see in a stream or on the beach – so that the next time artist Gabriel Orozco goes looking for objects that have been washed up on a beach, he won't be able to find any. And that doesn't just mean plastic as it is clear from Orozco's collages that the seas also contain pieces of glass.