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.

Reducing supermarket plastic

Eliminating plastic supermarket bags is getting a lot of attention, but that addresses only a part of plastic overload at supermarkets. A lot of foods are individually wrapped in plastic, which at best end up in our landfill.

Here is an interesting idea from Germany, where you take your own plastic containers to the supermarket. For hygiene reasons you place your container on a tray so the staff don’t touch yours (for hygiene reasons), they place the food – meat, cheese, whatever – into the container and hand you back the tray, and then you put the lid on and take your container.

This supermarket is fighting against unnecessary plastic

As you often put foods like this in containers at home anyway this saves the plastic packaging for transit from the supermarket to home.

It means you have to plan ahead, as you do taking your own bags to pack your groceries into, and all you have to do is take the storage containers as well. We should be able to manage that most of the time.

Simon Bridges tries comedy

Simon Bridges has failed to impress as National’s leader. Now he is trying comedy. Does this come off as successful ordinary blokeness, or does it look lame and desperate?

“Must-watch”? I did my blogger duty and tried watching it but I gave up half way through. Jono and ben made out they thought it was hilarious – perhaps laughing at the effect it might have on their show ratings – I didn’t find it very funny.

Newshub: Simon Bridges pranks customers at supermarket checkout (video included)

Simon Bridges has tried his hand at working at a supermarket checkout.

After a bad week in the Beehive, the National Party leader appeared on Three’s Jono and Ben to have a go at their long-running ‘Next Actor’ segment.

Mr Bridges donned a Countdown uniform and a headset, through which he received orders from mischievous hosts Jono and Ben.

Actually, there were aspects of it that I thought were quite inappropriate, like joking about theft as an employee, giving away goods, and handling food with his mouth.

One woman who approached his checkout knew exactly who he was, and didn’t look happy about being served by the politician.

In an effort to win her over, Mr Bridges tried to give back her GST in the form of 10c coins.

“Because I like you, I’m going to give you all your tax back on this stuff because you’re paying far too much tax at the moment.”

However, she was unimpressed by his gesture.

Some may think it was a hoot, but I was unimpressed with Bridges doing this. I’d rather see him try to look competent as a political leader. Perhaps he has given up on that.

Allowing himself to be used by a couple of shock jocks looks lame and desperate to me.