The Plastic Crisis Isn’t as Simple as It So Often Sounds

We human beings are exceptionally good at taking complicated matters and reducing them to overly simplistic arguments. We do it almost as well as taking simple principles and unnecessarily complicating them. At any rate, the so-called plastic crisis falls under the former category. It isn’t as simple as it so often sounds.

To believe many a blogger and journalist, the plastic crisis (if it even exists) is all about single-use plastics. From PET water bottles to take-out food containers, single-use plastics are the scourge of the Earth. Getting rid of them would solve the plastics problem entirely. But would it?

Landfills, Incinerators, and Waterways

Where do you suppose all our single-use plastics ultimately end up? If you think of recycling centers, think again. According to Tennessee’s Seraphim Plastics, the vast majority end up in landfills and incinerators. A small amount makes it into our waterways. By the way, that’s the crux of the crisis.

The argument against single-use plastics focuses almost entirely on plastic waste found in waterways. Those who would support banning single-use plastics love to show pictures of polluted beaches, rivers, and streams.

Do not misunderstand. Pollution of any kind is unacceptable. But the issue of plastics in our waterways is blown way out of proportion. Roughly 70% of the world’s surface is covered by water. The actual amount of plastic trash in the world’s waterways is minuscule compared to the volume of water.

Why We Use Plastics

Diving even deeper, consider why the world uses plastics. Ever since it was first invented, plastic has proved to be a revolutionary manufacturing material. There is nothing else like it. Plastic is strong yet lightweight. It can be made rigid or flexible. It can be formed into virtually any shape an engineer can dream up.

Best of all, plastic is extremely cheap to produce. Plastic is a byproduct of refining crude oil. We are already refining crude to produce gasoline, diesel, and other fossil fuels. So we might as well use the byproducts of oil refining to create plastic. too. That is what we do, and we do it very cheaply.

Having access to cheap plastic is a key factor in also giving us access to cheap consumer goods. You can buy a flat-screen TV for a few hundred dollars because it contains so much plastic. Eliminate the plastic and you have a much more expensive product – if it could even be manufactured at all.

We Want It Both Ways

The most distressing aspect of the plastic crisis debate is the reality that modern culture wants it both ways. On the one hand, we deride corporations for using cheap plastic to reduce their expenses and boost profits. At the same time, we would be quick to complain if prices shot up because manufacturers left plastic behind.

We also want it both ways with our healthcare. Guess what? A lot of our modern healthcare innovations would not exist if it were not for plastic. Have you ever seen a syringe? Have you ever seen an IV? There is so much plastic in the healthcare industry that most of us would be dumbfounded to actually sit down and analyze it. But without plastic, we cannot deliver the quality of healthcare we so often demand.

If we do have a legitimate plastic crisis, it is not as simple as there being too many single-use plastics in the world. It runs far deeper. The only way to solve it is to find a suitable replacement or go back to living the way people did before plastic was invented.

Pritam Chakrabortty
Pritam Chakrabortty
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