Putting plastics in perspective

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

My local town has gone all anti-plastic.  The mayor had a Damascene moment and discovered all the embodied evil in the stuff and she's vowed to make plastic history.  Good luck I thought.  Like a lot of people, I suspect, I manage to be both pro- and anti-plastic; pro its positive contribution to a better life (a longer shelf-life for perishable food, for example), and anti its more egregiously offensive uses (all that supermarket wrapping of fruit) – and let's not get started on the confusion over what can / cannot be recycled ...

Happily, the Economist ran a lengthy piece a couple of weeks ago on the history of plastic waste, how we've failed to deal with it over the past 60 years, and whether plastic really is the greatest issue we face (it's clearly not).  As ever, the graphics are stunning.  You really should read this.  Here's an extract:

Trucost, a research arm of Standard & Poor’s, a financial-information provider, has estimated that marine litter costs $13bn a year, mainly through its adverse effect on fisheries, tourism and biodiversity. It puts the overall social and environmental cost of plastic pollution at $139bn a year. Of that half arises from the climate effects of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to producing and transporting plastic. Another third comes from the impact of associated air, water and land pollution on health, crops and the environment, plus the cost of waste disposal.

To put that into perspective, the United Nations Development Programme says that the costs of overfishing and fertiliser run-off amount to some $50bn and $200bn-800bn a year, respectively. By 2100 ocean acidification, which is caused by atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolving into water, could cost $1.2trn a year. The costs of rapid ocean warming caused by human-induced climate change are hard to fathom but are likely to be enormous.

The overall cost of plastic pollution compares favourably with other sorts of man-made harm mostly because plastics are light. Making a kilogram of virgin plastic releases 2-3kg of carbon dioxide, about as much as the same amount of steel and five times more than wood. But a product made of plastic can weigh a fraction of a comparable one made of other materials.

That is why replacing plastic with other things could raise environmental costs at least fourfold, according to Trucost’s analysts. This is even true of the various virtue-signalling alternatives to plastic bags. A British government analysis from 2011 calculated that a cotton tote bag must be used 131 times before greenhouse-gas emissions from making and transporting it improve on disposable plastic bags. The figure rises to 173 times if 40% of the plastic bags are reused as bin liners, reflecting the proportion in Britain that are so repurposed. The carbon footprint of a paper bag that is not recycled is four times that of a plastic bag.


Just read that last paragraph again and despair at the simplicity of what passes for public discourse around plastics use.


Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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  • This is exactly what we meant in our SI when we talked about how neoliberalism narrows the political imagination. Individual consumptive choices, while important, are not enough to impact at scale.