Why we need to invest in the right plastics

With both public awareness of plastic pollution and our reliance on this versatile resource at an all-time high, it’s time to get clear on plastic

A friend recently gave me a glass drinking bottle, “because I know how much you hate plastic.” With this comment, the gift became as bittersweet as the homemade lemonade within. They had clearly not understood one of my tirades on plastic pollution – it seems I need to be clearer in my mission statement.

Plastic is too useful to replace; and acknowledging this, we should treasure it like gold and ban single-use plastic products. As a corollary, we need to re-evaluate our investment position on plastic-related companies, reassured by the knowledge that not all plastic is evil.

In an ideal world, we would use material other than plastic for all the multifarious purposes it’s currently put to – it is, after all, very hard to dispose of, taking between 500 and 1000 years to break down. As a result, there are now 500 times more pieces of microplastic in the sea than there are stars in our galaxy, and by 2050 fishermen will be more likely to catch plastic than fish. There is even growing concern that microplastics are getting into the air we breathe.

Thanks to the ‘Blue Planet Effect’ and high-profile initiatives like the UN’s ‘Global Goals for Sustainable Development’, public awareness of plastic’s pernicious impact on the environment is growing. This awareness could not have come sooner and will hopefully result in more action to clean up our act.

The inconvenient truth is, we need plastic - at least until we find a superior alternative

However, to demonize plastic without any consideration of its merits is naïve and indicative of our illogical attitude towards it.

Plastic is one of the great human inventions. Its unique properties – it is cheap, durable, sterile, convenient - make it useful across a range of areas from food packaging to surgical tools.

It is something of a wonder material. Look around you – it’s hard not to see something plastic: clothes, phones, furniture, houses and cars.  It is not unreasonable to think that the exponential advance of human innovation would have stalled without plastic.

In terms of viable alternatives, it is impossible to find a material as cheap and as versatile. And it’s more complicated than this. The actual environmental impact of plastic versus current alternatives is complex.  For example, the production of a single-use plastic bag requires much less energy and produces far lower CO2 emissions than a reusable cotton bag. In fact, you have to use your cotton bag 7100 times before its production will have had a lower environmental impact.

The inconvenient truth is, we need plastic - at least until we find a superior alternative. What needs to change then, is our attitude towards it. We are, as ever, the true villains of this piece.

Plastic is too useful to replace - we should treasure it like gold and ban single-use plastic

By creating single-use plastic products we display wilful disregard for the supreme irony that plastic is almost indestructible. We choose to use this super tough material for products we throw away after using only once.

Since its invention in 1907, over 75% of plastic produced has become waste. And so this triumph of ingenuity which has enabled so many innovations, now threatens the stability and security of our planet.

Plastic is a magic material. But, as with many magic items of legend, it is cursed by the properties which make it so valuable; and so, it has become valueless. We need to redress our ‘throwaway’ attitude towards this resource. We need to learn to love plastic or find ourselves the victims in some moralising fable.

The impetus for change must come at all levels; individuals, businesses and investors.  For changes of this magnitude to be effective, it requires structural readjustments: governments must invest, implement policies and support change; and investors must back plastic-related companies that recognise the true value of this resource.

We are already seeing an inspiring level of creativity: from businesses that make reusable tampon applicators and pre-fab plastic homes to those that produce energy from waste plastic. The potential impact is inspiring, and we expect this to increase, provided more talent and resources move into this space.

This shift in both attitude and action would mean a dramatic reduction in single-use plastic products which are the crux of this problem, not plastic itself.