This is a short guide that considers an answer to the question of whether a plastic free world is possible or not.
Firstly, Why Would People Want A Plastic Free World In The First Place?
Is a fair idea to think about.
Consider this guide that outlines the 21 potentially harmful effects of plastic (notice though how much uncertainty and conflict there can be around the actual impact that things like BPA, phthalates and micro-plastics might be having on us as humans – these sorts of issues probably need far more transparency and certainty around them with more definitive studies and reports).
There’s the potential negative impact of plastic on humans, wild life, the economy, the general environment, and more.
Not only is the use of plastic a potential concern in some ways, but the management of plastic waste and dealing with plastic pollution (including the break down of plastic into micro and nano plastic particles) can be too.
People read about this impact and these concerns, and may immediately start thinking why plastic exists in the first place.
Which brings us to the next part …
The Important Uses & Benefits Of Plastic In Society (& Our Current Reliance On It)
Along with the potential negative impacts plastic might have, plastic also serves many critical/important uses, and gives us many benefits in society.
These guides outline those uses, benefits, and also the major industries that use plastic:
- What Is Plastic Used For In Society? (Sectors That Use The Most Plastic)
- Ways In Which Plastic Benefits Society, The Environment & The Economy
What we see is there there are major benefits to plastic such as preventing food waste, and preserving hygiene, safety and health standards.
The food industry, medical industry and many other industries benefit from the use of plastic for different applications.
We also see that the plastic packaging and building and construction industries are among the highest users of plastic. Transport and delivery can be made much cheaper, along with having a lower environmental footprint in several ways with the use of plastic. Even using plastic bags over other materials of carrier bags like cotton, organic cotton, paper and composite materials can be beneficial environmentally according to some indicators.
There’s a very good chance that the home you live in and the building you work in utilise plastic for pipes, fixtures, and other building materials and even services.
So, Is A Plastic Free World Possible, Or Not?
Right now, definitely not (at least not in the short term).
And it’s unlikely we will be plastic free any time soon in the future too.
There’s simply too many critical functions that plastic helps us perform (because of it’s material properties, how many types of plastic and plastic products/items can be made, and how cheap and accessible it is), and there’s too many parts of society and industries that rely on it.
But, what we can do is focus on how we might better manage new, and existing plastics …
Managing New Plastics
Some ideas for managing new plastics might be:
Cut down on easily avoidable single use plastics, and plastics with a high waste rate (like plastic packaging) where possible. Buy less single use plastics, re-use plastic items as much as possible, and repurpose them as bin liners where possible (in the case of plastic bags)
Be smarter and have a more data driven approach with the way we dispose of and manage plastic waste – incineration may work better for some plastics, while recycling may be better for some. The high rates of plastic being sent to landfill right now need to be justified or changed. Plastic waste management is really something that needs localized solutions
Upgrade waste management collection and disposal facilities worldwide to reduce plastic pollution – especially in regions and countries with un secure and open landfill sites, and places where mismanaged plastic and river and ocean plastic pollution rates are high (low to middle income countries, China, and parts of Asia and South East Asia are identified by some sources as areas to focus on)
Identify plastics that have great benefit or present less of a perceived problem to society – such as plastic that performs critical functions (waste prevention, safety and hygiene, preserves health standards, reduces cost and environmental impact compared to alternative materials), or that has a multi-year or multi decade lifecycle (like construction plastics) – we may focus on reducing these plastics less in the short term than other plastics that present more problems than benefits
Put more time, money, research and development into the potential of changing the chemistry of plastics to address some of the leaching, degradation and other problems we may currently have with it
Managing Existing Plastics
Managing existing plastics may be difficult and costly. Some notes on that are:
Micro plastics and nano plastics that are already in land and ocean environments, in water supplies, and so on, are going to be essentially impossible to completely remove.
Removing plastic from the ocean is also quite expensive (because the re-sale value of plastic can be quite low compared to the cost to get the plastic out of the ocean)
To keep it simple in addressing a complex issue – we can pick up existing plastic from beaches and land via volunteer clean ups, and continue to remove plastic from the ocean basins and garbage patches with clean ups where there is funding.
It may also help to focus on reducing our individual litter footprints of some of the most commonly found littered plastic items.