Are you of the belief that plastic poses an existential threat to humanity? And if so, what do you think the best solution is? If you are thinking plastic bans, you’re not alone. Growing numbers of consumers seem to think that the only way to solve the plastics problem is for governments to step in and ban plastics. It is not going to work.
A recent post published by the German media website Deutsche Welle (DW) began by stating the following:
“With only 9% of annual plastic waste recycled, the myth that we can recycle our way out of a mounting plastic pollution crisis doesn’t add up.”
The piece’s author clearly believes that the world is facing an insurmountable plastic pollution problem. He also believes that recycling is a myth, and that continued attempts to recycle are not going to solve the problem. He is correct about that. But just as we cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution, we cannot ban our way out, either.
Is the problem even real?
For the better part of 20 years, we’ve been hearing a constant drumbeat from only one side of the debate, the side that says plastic is evil, destructive, etc. We have been presented with endless study data that is highly suspect, at best. Everywhere you look, we allegedly have a crisis involving plastic waste. But is the problem even real?
Humanity has always produced trash. It always will. And throughout human history, we have always found ways to take care of our trash so that it doesn’t pose a problem to human health or safety. Sure, we can produce lots of pictures of public beaches littered with plastic trash. But the problem those pictures illustrate isn’t a plastic problem. It is a human problem. People are too lazy to dispose of their trash correctly. It wouldn’t matter if the trash were plastic, paper, or any other material.
What would bans accomplish?
Plastic bans make people feel good about their efforts to save the planet, but what do they do beyond that? Very little. Wherever plastic is banned, some other material must be used. So maybe it is a paper bag instead of a plastic one. Instead of being too lazy to throw a plastic bag in the trash, the same person is too lazy to throw a paper bag in the trash. What is the difference?
You might argue that paper is biodegradable where plastic isn’t. Fair enough. But how many trees must be cut down to make paper bags? How much damage needs to be done to the environment to keep the paper industry going? One way or the other, there is an environmental cost to human existence. Banning plastics only shifts the environmental cost to something else. The cost itself remains.
What can we do?
If there truly is a plastic pollution problem, and I am highly suspect of that, the way to solve it is to do a better job of recycling and disposing. Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics operates a viable business that effectively recycles industrial scrap plastic. We need to do more of what they do. As for what cannot be effectively recycled, people need to stop blaming corporations and take responsibility for their own actions. Pollution exists because people pollute. We have no one to blame but ourselves.
Plastic bans are good political tools. They are fodder for activists who want to feel good about their accomplishments. But in the end, we cannot ban our way out. So if the plastic pollution problem is real, we need to look inward for the solution.