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Going on about plastics...

Winfred Peppinck

I have lost count of the number of programmes on the telly which raise the issue of plastic and the harm it is doing to… well, almost everything.
I understand that it is an important issue; I really do. I remember teaching science to students in Bahrain and elsewhere and discussing pollution with them – many years ago. Plastics and the difficulties associated with their disposal and the consequent environmental problems were all part of the debate. I can recall asking groups of students to imagine that time was twenty five years ahead (as it is now) and that they were in positions of power and influence in their respective countries. I asked them what they would do to solve the plastic problem.
Responses ranged from ‘ban plastic’ to ‘tax the use of plastic’ to ‘develop plastics which can biodegrade’. There were no responses which foresaw a world which still permitted plastic pollution. I wonder where these marvellous young people are now. Did any make it to positions of influence? It doesn’t seem so.
So what has been done? Why are we still going on about it? Do people not care?
There are plastics which can biodegrade, it’s true. The difficulty is that while they are chemically engineered to break down more rapidly than ‘traditional’ plastics, they still tend to produce residues which are not always harmless. They are also still made from oil, which is not really solving part of the problem: we all know that oil is a finite resource.
Then there are the plastics which are actually called ‘bioplastics’, as they are made from a substance which is more natural than oil, say cornstarch. This can be used to manufacture polylactide acid (PLA), which can be – is being – used as an alternative to the plastics used to make food containers, for example.
Finally, there is recycling, which involves simply using existing plastic to make new plastic, hopefully thereby reducing the amount of new plastic which is made.
Unfortunately, these tactics frequently create more of a problem than they solve. Bioplastics are made from plants such as corn and maize, so land that could be used to grow food for people to eat is being used to ‘grow’ plastic instead. This could cause a significant rise in food prices which would hit poor people hardest. Ironically, the associated ‘intensive agriculture’ which produces greenhouse gas emissions from the
farm machinery and water pollution from fertiliser run-off could well produce greater environmental harm than if plastics had been used in the first place. The corn may be genetically modified, too. Finally, the product: PLA, which is a bioplastic, and PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a traditional plastic, which is used to make soft drink containers, look so alike that they are placed into recycling containers together.
This compromises the recycling process.
It is difficult. But to make a start is easy. For example, give yourself a pat on the back if you already do any of these: use a reusable bag for shopping; buy your fruit and vegetables loose, avoiding the extra plastic on pre-packaged items; use long-lasting items, such as razors and refillable pens.

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