There is no denying that the world produces tons of plastic products every year. We also throw out tons more, most of which ends up in landfills. The reality of a world that functions on plastic has led to all sorts of debates covering everything from waste to recycling. Unfortunately, the debates have led to very little by way of productive solutions. They tend to only engender more debate.
The world would be better off if it stepped back and looked at plastics from a more comprehensive point of view. Rather than isolating single issues and limiting one’s understanding to them, seeing the big picture takes the edge off many of the most difficult debate points. It erases other points entirely.
In an effort to inject some pragmatism into the plastic discussion, here are five things to consider:
1. Plastics Start with Petroleum
One of the main objections to plastics for some people is the idea that they are synthetic materials. While that may be true, the foundational ingredient of every plastic known to man is petroleum. And where does petroleum come from? The ground. Petroleum is not a synthetic material. It is a natural material produced by the decomposition of living things.
Petroleum is just as natural as the trees that provide us wood and paper. It is just as natural as the flacks we use to make threads, yarns, and fabrics. To assume petroleum is bad for the environment is to misunderstand the environment itself.
2. Industrial Recycling Works Well
In terms of recycling efforts, post-industrial recycling works extremely well. Take a company like Nashville-based Seraphim Plastics. They run a highly successful business purchasing post-industrial plastic waste and recycling it for use in new manufacturing. Moreover, demand for the recycled plastics they sell is extremely high.
3. Commercial Recycling Doesn’t Work Well
On the other hand, recycling commercial plastics doesn’t work very well. It has not worked well since we started doing it decades ago. The problems that make commercial recycling impractical are many and varied. For starters, mixed materials require manual sorting. This is expensive and time-consuming. Second, cleaning most commercial plastics is an arduous process at best.
Commercial recycling programs traditionally don’t pay off because it takes more effort and financial resources to recycle than it does to purchase virgin plastic. Until we fix that problem, commercial recycling will continue to fail.
4. Plastic Is Better in Many Cases
Some plastic critics believe the world would be a better place without any plastics at all. They do not realize that plastics are better than other materials for a lot of applications. Sometimes they are the best option. One example is plastic food packaging. Plastic is an effective barrier against bacteria and other contaminants. It is one of the best materials for keeping food safe.
5. Plastics Dominate Modern Technology
Along the same lines as the previous point, plastics dominate modern technology. Completely ban plastics and you had better be prepared to say goodbye to the cell phone, TV, laptop computer, and on and on. Most of the consumer electronics we find so important would not exist if it were not for plastics. This is just the reality. Without plastics, the modern world would not be what it is today.
Can we do a better job of manufacturing and recycling plastics? Absolutely. In fact, just changing the way we manufacture could address some of the most persistent recycling challenges. But framing plastics as an evil that must be eradicated is foolish and nonsensical. Doing so is a failure to recognize the value of plastics in a modern world.