This is the story we hear from environmentalists all over the world. Plastic ends up in our overflowing rubbish dumps and landfill. It takes many years to decompose, polluting the environment and ground water in the process.
But in researching for this article I found the arguments are not so clear cut as some pressure groups would have us believe.
The plastic bag dilemma
Let's take this simple example. Thin plastic carrier bags! In China these have been banned by the government and in the summer of 2009 Mexico did the same.
ASDA, now owned by the supermarket chain Walmart, are supposedly reducing their use in the UK, although my own local ASDA is still handing them out generously, despite all their green hype. As an eco gesture the checkout assistant will ask if you need a plastic bag or not. If you want one, you get one free.
Strangely, I hear that Walmart has eliminated plastic wrapping entirely from its stores in Brazil. Perhaps it's our cultural attachment to the plastic bag and shopping that makes it more difficult to get rid of in the West.
Correction: Since writing this article I discovered that the country ranking as the biggest consumer of plastic bags in the world is actually Thailand, and India comes third in the use of plastic in general. I have to say that I am gobsmacked.
Shopping without plastic bags? Well it's not going to happen is it, unless you have very big pockets? But there are some viable alternatives. When I was a lad there were no plastic bags at all. There were paper bags. Paper certainly decomposes faster and has no major pollution issues, or does it?
If one truck full of plastic bags were replaced by the same number of paper bags, it would take seven trucks to transport them. That's a lot of nasty fumes pumped into the atmosphere. Another advantage of plastic over paper is that it takes up a tiny space in landfill compared to paper because it compresses so easily.
I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday who has just started a business recycling the contents of skips. These will include just a small amount of plastic but it will not end up as recycled plastic products. Instead it will be used to produce energy.
What about the poisonous dioxins you may ask. Well that's what I asked too. It turns out that you can burn in a gasless way. I'd never heard of it before. But this prevents the release of noxious fumes and the plastic still serves a useful purpose at the end of its life.
Save the trees
But getting back to the idea of using paper bags instead - there is the issue of where the paper comes from. That would be trees! And we all know the importance of trees for reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Trees eat CO2 in the process of photosynthesis, and CO2 is a major greenhouse gas causing global warming and climate change. So we have to maintain our current levels of forest.
In fact we had better increase our forest acreage a lot faster than we currently are doing. There just isn't enough, and it's still shrinking worldwide at a rate of 20,000 hectares a day. And if you don't have a clue what a hectare is, then we are talking about 50,000 acres a day disappearing. So, turning back to the days of paper bags may not be so welcome either. I'm not saying we can't, but it takes a bit of forward planning, and if our UK Government plans as well for tree planting as it did for the recent cold snap, then we are in for a big disappointment.
Recycled glass or recycled plastic?
At the time, plastic seemed the ideal replacement for glass, medical syringes, food and drink storage etc., After all, it takes a lot of energy to turn sand into glass - much more than it takes to make plastic containers.
Once upon a time, we didn't recycle the glass, we reused it. In the 50s you could bring your beverage bottles back to the corner shop and actually get money for them from the shop keeper, who sold them back to his suppliers, who cleaned them up and put them back into service.
I have never understood why that went out of fashion. It isn't just the fact that you aren't dumping tons of glass into landfill, or avoid using more energy to turn it into something new, it's the element of time that is wasted when you throw something away that can easily be cleaned and reused.
But you can't just reuse plastic bottle ad nauseum. They don't clean up so well as glass, and they go a bit floppy if you apply the temperatures needed for sterilising. I think the best solution is to recycle plastic as well as reuse glass.
The Intelligent solution
You may get a few reuses for a plastic container, but eventually the best thing that you can do is to melt it down and make it into something else that will be useful. For the time being this seems to be the most intelligent solution. Recycled plastic has many advantages. Reprocessing it uses less energy than melting down glass. In landfill plastic doesn't rot, but in your garden, unlike wood, even hardwood, this same plastic, recycled, is a very good thing, when you want a garden bench, a compost tumbler, a raised bed or a planter. 'No rot' becomes an asset, no mould, no paint or varnish to apply, easy to clean and maintain.
The discussion will continue for some time to come, and meanwhile we need to use our intelligence and ingenuity to find more and more new uses for old plastic. We can't really do without it yet, so plastic and even more recycled plastic products will remain with us for some considerable time to come.
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