The plastic question is hard to crack

Is a total ban the solution? Making a choice appears difficult as alternatives are not as green as previously thought Bryony Drought was frozen in the fruit section. To her left on a recent shopping trip, the 26-year-old London school teacher saw “normal” bananas, grown using pesticides and chemical fertilizer. On the right were organic bananas — swaddled in clear plastic wrap. Ms. Drought was exasperated, torn between a desire for natural eating and a commitment to use less plastic. “What is the best option? It’s very difficult,” she says. “I follow lots of people on Instagram who are advocates for reducing plastic, and they are constantly coming out with statistics. I was reading one thing a few days ago, saying that in 2050 there is going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish…We need to stop what we’re doing.” A high tide of journalism, activism, and corporate public relations has made plastic a priority for people around the globe. In an Orb Media online poll of 42,000 people in 30 countries, a quarter said they were “extremely worried” about plastic’s impact on our world. But heightened awareness has also bred confusion over people’s responsibilities and options, and the role of governments and industry in reducing plastic pollution. Twenty-one percent of survey respondents said the answer to plastic pollution is increased recycling, and 10% favoured reducing consumption, answers broadly aligned with expert opinion. But thousands more suggested eliminating all plastic, or using alternative materials such as paper and glass, which studies show could be more harmful to the environment than plastic itself. “There is a great deal of stress that is felt with this increased information,” says Norah MacKendrick, an environmental sociologist at Rutgers University. “Consumers feel like they are on their own.” It’s conventional wisdom that the world has a plastic problem. Last month, the Collins Dictionary named “single-use” its Word of the Year, noting that use of the term for throwaway plastic has jumped 400% since 2013. Plastic is clearly an environmental crisis, with an estimated eight million animal-killing tonnes entering the oceans each year. “There is just a smothering, and an overwhelming sense that you can’t control it,” says Basil Pather, conservation warden at the coastal Beachwood Mangrove Reserve in Durban, South Africa, where volunteers haul out between one and five tonnes of plastic dinnerware and containers every week. Less prominent in the plastic narrative are emerging questions over microscopic plastic pollution in food, air, soil, and water, and the safety of chemical additives in plastic food packaging — areas where scientists are racing to learn the implications for human health. Proposals to make consumer brands and plastic producers responsible for the cost of plastic waste are slowly taking shape. So is a revolution in product design that would make more plastic items easier to recycle. Packaging comprises fully 40% of the more than 380 million tonnes of plastic produced globally each year. Try to go a day without touching plastic. Synthetic polymer is embedded in daily life, from clothing to furniture and medical care to your smartphone. It’s integral to a globalised food supply chain. “Plastic is a great material for that application because it’s a water barrier, it’s an oxygen barrier, it’s lightweight and it helps preserve food,” says Arturo Castillo, an industrial ecologist at Imperial College in London. “So we have a lot of food packaging, and we need it.” “Plastic is not a problem, but littering is a problem,” says B. Swaminathan, a veteran of the plastics industry in Asia and Africa. “You’re shooting the messenger.” Mr. Swaminathan’s messenger is taking a beating.

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