Peo­ple, not plas­tics, are the prob­lem

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - TODD WHITCOMBE

Are poly­meric sub­stances in our oceans an is­sue? Yes. Is the pol­lu­tion on land aris­ing from the so-called plas­tics a prob­lem? No ques­tion. Should we ban them? Um­m­mmm….

Over the years I have writ­ten these col­umns, I fre­quently find science and gov­ern­ment pol­icy in­ter­sect­ing. Climate change, flu­o­ri­da­tion of drink­ing wa­ter, smart phones and any num­ber of other is­sues gov­ern­ment wants to ad­dress have a scientific com­po­nent. The is­sue of plas­tics is cer­tainly one of them.

Last week, our prime min­is­ter pro­posed a ban on “sin­gle use plas­tics.” It cer­tainly sounds like a great idea. Do we re­ally need things wrapped in plas­tic or uti­liz­ing a ma­te­rial which we are then go­ing to throw out?

This is par­tic­u­larly the case where the polymers or plas­tics are find­ing their way into the en­vi­ron­ment and im­pact­ing wildlife. Video of a sea tur­tle hav­ing a drink­ing straw re­moved from its nasal pas­sage or bird car­casses con­tain­ing white­board mark­ers make for very dis­turb­ing im­ages. The Great Pa­cific Gyre, with its is­lands of plas­tics float­ing on the sur­face, or the prospects of mi­cro-plas­tics in­fused into the food chain would seem to in­di­cate we have gone too far.

Ex­cept sim­ply ban­ning sin­gle use plas­tics leads to all sorts of other prob­lems and is­sues. Yes, I can do with­out a straw and drink­ing directly from a glass. Or use a pa­per straw. Or even a re-use­able metal cylin­der. But at what cost?

One of the rea­sons plas­tic straws, bags and con­tain­ers are so plen­ti­ful is be­cause they are so cheap to make. And per­haps more im­por­tantly, they use fewer chem­i­cals while gen­er­at­ing fewer emis­sions.

If we con­sider the en­ergy con­sump­tion and car­bon diox­ide emis­sions from mak­ing, say, a pa­per straw, they are con­sid­er­ably higher than mak­ing a com­pa­ra­ble straw from polyethy­lene. Stain­less steel straws con­sume way more than ei­ther pa­per or plas­tic in their pro­duc­tion.

Many years ago, one of my pro­fes­sors at UVic an­a­lyzed the en­ergy costs and chem­i­cal con­sump­tion re­quired to make var­i­ous forms of drink­ing ves­sels – Sty­ro­foam cof­fee cups, pa­per cups, glass and ce­ramic mugs, metal con­tain­ers. It turns out a sin­gle ce­ramic mug gen­er­ates 1,500 times the car­bon diox­ide as a Sty­ro­foam cup.

Put an­other way, you could use 1,499 Sty­ro­foam cups and still be more car­bon friendly than us­ing a ce­ramic mug. And that is as­sum­ing you never wash the ce­ramic mug. But oth­ers might say Sty­ro­foam

cups add to our land­fills and we now know they are get­ting into our wa­ter­ways and even­tu­ally into our oceans. From a pure mass point of view, the 1,500 Sty­ro­foam cups are a prob­lem. The ques­tion is – which prob­lem are we try­ing to solve? Car­bon diox­ide in our at­mos­phere? Polymers in our land­scape and wildlife?

Pa­per is of­ten touted as the more rea­son­able al­ter­na­tive but it takes a long time to grow trees and con­sump­tion of pa­per re­sults in large scale de­for­esta­tion. We live in a town for which pulp pro­duc­tion is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of our econ­omy but there are many peo­ple wor­ried about the long term vi­a­bil­ity of our fi­bre sup­ply. What do we do then?

At the core of the is­sue is some­thing called life-cy­cle anal­y­sis. Proper analy­ses take a long time to com­plete and some­time miss im­por­tant vari­ables or com­po­nents – mostly be­cause the data hasn’t been re­searched yet.

As an ex­am­ple, if we do want to trap car­bon and pre­vent it from be­ing re­leased into the at­mos­phere as car­bon diox­ide, then bury­ing plas­tics in land­fills is a good way to deal with this. The ma­te­rial will act as a sink for the car­bon for well over 1,000 years. No car­bon diox­ide. No meth­ane. Does it make sense to ban plas­tics if they will re­move car­bon from the en­vi­ron­ment?

But the data on just how long it takes each of the dif­fer­ent types of polymers to break­down and un­der what con­di­tions is not yet avail­able. In­deed, be­cause ev­ery land­fill is unique, ac­cu­rate data may never be avail­able. We will just need to go with av­er­ages and sup­po­si­tions.

Ban­ning sin­gle-use plas­tics does ap­pear to make sense but a bet­ter ap­proach would be to en­sure all plas­tic ma­te­ri­als are used and dis­posed of in ap­pro­pri­ate fash­ion.

I was trav­el­ling re­cently and while sit­ting in an air­port wait­ing area I watched a man fin­ish up a chocolate bar. He then dropped the wrap­per to the ground. There were garbage cans five me­tres in front of him but he couldn’t be both­ered to carry his waste that far.

The is­sue isn’t re­ally sin­gle-use plas­tics. It is liv­ing in a so­ci­ety where we do not feel re­spon­si­ble for our waste. If we were all much more con­scious about what we buy and how we dis­pose of things, many of our prob­lems might dis­ap­pear.

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