Sensible use of plastic has environmental benefits

Plastic is getting thrashed as an ecological disaster. Supermarkets no longer pack groceries into ‘single use’ plastic bags, even though they were frequently used for multiple purposes.

But we have to be careful that the alternatives to plastic are not worse.

We now buy plastic rubbish bags to replace the ‘free’ supermarket bags we re-used.

Listener editorial:  Why anti-plastic zealotry could be harmful to the environment

Yes, single-use plastic bags have become an environmental menace, plastic packaging is often gratuitous and the reuse of plastic items is urgently to be championed.

But it’s essential to consider the counterfactuals, and to understand the ways in which some usage of plastic has helped and can increasingly help preserve the environment.

Before we ordain the wholesale elimination of plastic food packaging, for example, we need to assess the alternative carbon footprint of producing food that cannot be preserved and therefore gets wasted, or becomes uneconomic to produce.

We also need to remember that plastic components can make vehicles, including aircraft, lighter and more fuel efficient. And we should compare the environmental effects of producing such materials as steel and aluminium. In some places, plastic may be the new environmental hero.

Even the detested flimsy supermarket bag may do less overall environmental damage than a seemingly virtuous cotton tote bag. Britain’s Environment Agency has calculated that a cotton bag would have to be used between 131 and 173 times before its contribution to global warming fell below that of a single supermarket plastic bag. Even a paper bag would have to be reused three to four times before being greener than a plastic one. The figures were based on the agency’s finding that about 40% of the plastic bags were reused at least once.

We have already bought far more re-usable bags than we normally need. Some of them are in each car to avoid forgetting them, and some end up accumulating at home.

These calculations, from 2011, are likely to have changed since British supermarkets started charging five pence a bag in 2017 – but not necessarily for the better. Even as the Government trumpeted a reduction in supermarket bags from 1.3 billion a year to 1 billion in 2017-18, it emerged that the stores had sold an extra billion “bags for life” – sturdier totes that used three times more plastic than the old bags.

Confoundingly, many Britons are consuming the sturdier bags in the same way as the old bags – sometimes reusing them, but then throwing them away.

We may simply have replaced one problem with another.

In his recent series on plastic for BBC Discovery, professor of materials and society at University College London Mark Miodownik gave the example of Hippo Water Rollers: light tanks that are increasingly enabling the 46% of the world’s population without access to clean water to get a safe supply. The plastic tanks can be wheeled great distances by people on foot, and the water is then stored in hygienic – plastic – dispensers. They’re life-savers, he says.

Miodownik says it’s also worth remembering how the advent of plastic curtailed the slaughter of animals for their horns, drastically lowered the price of consumer goods and revolutionised hygiene in medicine.

Plastic has many uses and benefits for both people and the environment.

There’s a maze of hypocrisy to negotiate. Our supermarkets are trumpeting their phase-out of bags, and shoppers are basking in the virtue of jute totes, but the brisk trade in food needlessly cling-wrapped on plastic trays continues.

Providing tray-packed produce boosts supermarkets’ sales because people like the convenience of not waiting for meat or fish to be wrapped. Supermarket research shows people will often grab, say, three packaged courgettes rather than bother to put the two they really need into a bag. Prepackaging also speeds store throughput, reducing daunting congestion, so, again, supermarkets sell more.

And dish out more plastic.

The well-intentioned also champion the reduction of animal-based agriculture, and conversion to vegetarianism and veganism. Yet it’s not wool or leather clothing that sloughs microscopic synthetic pollutants into the oceans. Artificial fibres have become omnipresent and are entering the human food chain. And horticulture is hardly a low-impact activity on the environment.

Perhaps a lot more thought and research is required before jumping on the last environmental fad wagon.

As Miodownik says, our task is to rebalance our use of plastic, through a combination of behaviour change, government action and science. Plastic’s here to stay; it’s up to us to make it green.

Balance and sensible use seem to be lacking from the debates and the agendas of ‘green’ activists.

Leave a comment


  1. Zedd

     /  31st January 2019

    Mr Jack Herer (RIP) once said; they could make biodegradable plastic from hemp..
    ‘people need to start listening’ sez I

    fossil fuel oil.. is passed it ‘useby date’

    • FF is ‘killing the planet’ it is poisonous, to life

      btw; you can also make biofuels & 1000s of other organic products too

      google: ‘The Emperor wears NO clothes’ by Jack the Hemperor

  2. J Bloggs

     /  31st January 2019

    The “replace with reusable bags” is the best public con job the supermarkets have run in years – in one stroke they were able to replace a multi-million dollar cost in providing single use plastic bags with a profit-line in selling re-usable bags, and were able to take the moral high ground in the process.


    • Zedd

       /  31st January 2019

      believe it or NOT

      • Kitty Catkin

         /  31st January 2019

        The new ‘reusables’ are poor quality; I am not alone in finding this. I have always used totes or a wheeled bag (well, for a long time) and used to have great trouble convincing New World and Countdown operators that I DIDN’T WANT BAGS, especially the size that were too small for bin bags.

        I was reading about the live-saving uses of plastic. Plastic buckets made life much easier for people in Africa, then someone invented the brilliant Hippo Roller. It’s basically a large plastic barrel. made without seams to avoid leaks, with tough wheels and a metal handle. It is designed so that it’s like wheeling 10kg and has saved lives, while making carrying water really easy. The water is then put into clean plastic containers and rolled back for a refill.

        Plastic is a great invention, it’s misuse is the problem.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  31st January 2019

          Ooops, I missed that in the post…we read the same article. I forget where it was.

  3. Alan Wilkinson

     /  31st January 2019

    A totally fuckwitted Govt policy and supermarkets get free disposal of their carfboard box waste and get to sell bigger harder to recycle “multi-use” plastic bags that are useless as bin liners and probably will mostly be single use.

    A triumph for feel-good drivelling stupidity.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  31st January 2019

      Some people (cough) stockpiled the others.

      Pak & Save have always had the boxes, and people like them, especially banana boxes which hold a lot and are super-strong.

      As binliners are sold in the shops, I can’t see the advantage of getting rid of the others…and why buy dogpoo bags when breadbags are free ? No doubt the Greens will want to get rid of those, too, despite their many uses, like being used for fruit instead of the flimsy fruit bags that are still there and are much more likely to be single use.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  31st January 2019

        After our last guests left I had more than a barrowload of crushed boxes to recycle and watched someone else deliver a full trailorload there. Previously the plastic supermarket bags for the week would have needed one hand to hold them all.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  31st January 2019

          Yes, but most people don’t use that many.

          • Kitty Catkin

             /  31st January 2019

            One thing that I really detest is coated paper when it doesn’t need to be coated.The labels inside the bags that some sheets came in were coated, despite being inside a plastic bag, and I don’t remember a funeral where the pew sheets weren’t that kind of paper that feels sort of like plastic; you can’t tear it, which is a sign that it’s treated in some way.

  1. Sensible use of plastic has environmental benefits — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition

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