When the “Plastic-Free” Ethos Meets Reality
By Christian Josi, TES Contributor
As a person fortunate enough to live and work in a place where my front yard is a marina and my back yard the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, a part of just about every day involves plucking litter–mostly plastic based things doing demonstrable harm to oceans and wildlife. On Monday mornings during the summer, my beach often resembles a movie theater when the lights come up —the ground covered in discarded cups, bags, trash, and containers. Those of us on the coast see the urgent threats this poses to our ecosystem. And most of us can agree there is no solution to this problem that does not involve substantial changes in our behavior and practices when it comes to plastics.
I generally try to be solution minded. I keep my thinking to a level that is fact-based and realistic. I do not have a great deal of patience for those who spout platitudes demanding an immediate “Plastics-free life,” (even The New York Times concedes that such a life would be very hard at best). Nor can I listen to those who deny that there is an urgent problem.
Between the extreme demanders and the deniers, there exists a common-sense Third Way to look at and address this problem, and that involves understanding all single-use plastics are not created equal. That throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to getting a handle on the plastic waste problem is not in the interest of progress nor human health and safety. At least not at this moment in time. There is a lot we can be doing differently right now, and indeed we are starting to, when it comes to single-use plastics, but there also exist instances where they remain essential to human life–necessary for healthcare, and the safety of perishable food and water.
We need to look at a “Hierarchy of Plastics”:
Low-value, single-use plastics such as straws, food delivery containers and Amazon packaging (the varieties of both which we are all becoming much more familiar in the COVID 19 era–more on that in a minute) that can and must be restricted–for there are feasible alternatives that do not adversely impact human health or create unreasonable consumer cost.
Moderate-value plastics like those currently used in non-perishable food packaging, consumer goods and housewares for which mass economically and logistically feasible replacements do not yet exist and for which heavy-handed restrictions create tensions that threaten to halt progress on controlling Low-value offenders, And;
High-value plastics which cannot be restricted without real risk to human life like those used in medical devices and equipment (syringes, surgical gloves, IV bags), perishable food packaging, and bottled water.
The COVID-19 battle has reminded us all of the critical nature of High-value plastics in the medical realm, and I am pretty sure few healthcare providers nor those who have been saved from COVID are spending much time on the “Plastics-Free Life” bandwagon.
On the other side of the coin, the lack of actual disruption (I said actual disruption, not mild personal annoyance) we see in the simple current transition of the paper straw as a replacement for the ecological disaster that the plastic straw has proven to be is a good example of doing the do-able. Grocery stores transitioning from the old massive, indestructible single-use plastic clamshell containers for things like cupcakes and roasted chickens is another.
Continuing to move on the low-value plastics for which viable alternatives exist via regulations, and when necessary, bans, is a ‘now’ mandate we can and should all get behind. As for most Moderate-and all High value plastics, our best option at this moment lies in greater recycling efforts, pure and simple. We have the tools like this to meaningfully alleviate problems we aren’t yet equipped to fully solve, but we are not taking full advantage of them.
Policymakers, environmental groups, and concerned citizens have the opportunity of a lifetime to reduce single-use plastic pollution that is contributing to ocean pollution and threatening marine life. Yet in their zeal to address the problem, they must recognize that all single-use plastic is not created equal. Rather, it comes according to a hierarchy of value. Understanding this hierarchy and that a “Plastics-Free Life,” though perhaps a laudable long-term goal, is neither possible nor desirable at this moment in technological time is truly our best path to progress toward a cleaner and healthier world.