In the lead up to Plastic Free July, social media is abuzz with anti-plastics campaigners many of whom are trying to sell their plastic-free products.
In many cases, non-plastic products will be wonderful and worthy of your consideration. However, what a lot of people seem to misunderstand about Plastic Free July is that it’s not actually about going plastic free.
It’s about going single-use plastic free.
And the distinction is important.
“Plastic Free July provides resources and ideas to help you (and millions of others around the world) reduce single-use plastic waste everyday at home, work, school, and even at your local café.” – Plastic Free July website (emphasis added)
Plastic has received a lot of negative press of late and some of it is undeniably deserved – for example, it is estimated that 10 million tonnes of plastic waste is entering our oceans each year and contributing to environmental disasters such as the Great Pacific garbage patch and the presumably slow and painful deaths of marine life including whales and turtles and countless birds. Even when plastic is recyclable, only 10% of it is thought to actually be recycled.
Our reliance on this material is totally unsustainable.
But, the answer is about choosing when plastic IS the best material for the intended purpose.
That’s generally where it is reusable, as opposed to just being recyclable.
Plastic is a light weight material that can be durable, strong and highly malleable and versatile - characteristics that not all natural fibres can boast. Not all plastics are created equal either – some that have food contact for example can be made without the nasty chemicals but are generally a bit pricier. In some instances, plastic can even be a better alternative than a natural fibre. Take reusable bags, for example.
According to this Smart Company article, a UK study found that thicker-grade plastic bag needs to be used 4 times as opposed to a cotton bag, which needs to be used 131 times to have the same climate change impact.
While the UK study referred to above looks bad for cotton bags, a Danish study, which used a different set of assessment variables, paints an even worse story which suggests that a cotton bag needs to be used a whopping 7,100 times compared with 37 times for their plastic counterpart!
Life cycle assessments are not straight forward. They take into account a wide range of factors and can be complex. Some say they may be biased as they are generally commissioned by someone with a vested interest in the assessment result but, that’s not to say that they are not worthwhile.
It is wise to remember they are limited to the criteria that they assess and may not tell the full story.
Even if you take into account the water, cleared land and resources required to grow the cotton, perhaps it's even reasonable to look at a cotton bag's end of life's impact and to conclude that it is a better option to plastic bags where the stats suggest the plastic will not be recycled and will end up in the ocean wreaking havoc.
Other environmental factors to consider when comparing plastic alternatives to natural fibres is deforestation, water consumption and hygiene.
This is why we constantly reiterate that we believe that
single-use is the problem and that reuse is the solution.
So, if this #plasticfreejuly you see a great product that is or contains plastic we ask you to remember that plastic is not of itself the enemy, waste is. Choose well, choose to reuse!