With all our amazing technology, why do single-use plastics still exist?

plastic trash
CC BY 2.0 Iwan Gabovitch

It seems ludicrous that we haven't developed an alternative for this harmful and persistent material that permeates our lives and planet.

When a young turtle was found dead near Perth, Australia, researchers at Murdoch University wanted to figure out why. It turned out that poor ‘Tina the Turtle’ was stuffed with plastic trash. Dr. Erina Young told local news:

“I was shocked and horrified to discover the turtle's intestines full of rubbish – from plastic bags, plastic packaging, food wrappers to synthetic ropes and twine. The plastic would have caused immense suffering and ultimately contributed to her death.”

Tina is just one example of the enormous problem facing all humans and animals on this planet. It is not uncommon for researchers to find marine mammals, fish, and seabirds that have suffocated or starved because of plastic they’ve mistaken for food. Once hailed as a miracle material, plastic is now looking like more of a nightmare pollutant – an eternal material that never biodegrades, leaches toxic chemicals into its surroundings, and poses a huge threat to animals (and the humans who eat them).

While plastic does serve an important role in fields such as medicine, it should not be part of our everyday lives. Knowing the damage caused by these items, much stricter action needs to be taken to prevent their use. Single-use plastics should be banned outright, or the fees to access items like grocery bags, coffee cups, Styrofoam takeouts, straws, and water bottles should be so astronomically high that no one would want to forget their own reusable option.

Good alternatives do exist, such as glass jars, cloth bags, metal containers, wooden boxes, etc. I’ve been to major functions where food is served on compostable plates made from leaves and wooden cutlery, and to bars that use only paper straws. An event for World Oceans Day, hosted by Lush Cosmetics in Toronto, featured cocktails for a crowd served in (straw-free!) Mason jars.

But these alternatives, sadly, are not mainstream. They require shoppers, store-owners, and event planners to go out of their way, usually to make a ‘pro-green’ statement of some kind. They have yet to become the default option.

This is where I believe we need a much greater emphasis on developing viable, large-scale, commercial alternatives to single-use plastics and packaging. There have been a few novel and promising ideas, such as edible WikiPearls and oil- and wax-based packaging and gelatinous water-holders, but we don’t see any of these in local grocery stores. It’s not because we lack the ability to invent and use them, but because it hasn’t been a priority. We’ve been distracted too long by other, more exciting things.

Thus far, the focus on technological innovation has been skewed to those technologies that author and scientist Peter Kalmus describes as “talismanic of the myth of progress” – a deep, subconscious belief that we are, and always will be, more advanced than past societies. In Being the Change, he writes:

“3D printers, the Internet of Things, social media, virtual reality – do these technologies truly make us happier? What about self-driving cars and voice assistants? Is this the world we really want to live in, or are there perhaps more interesting and kinder dimensions to explore?”

I wish we could use our tremendous collective technological knowledge to create plastic-free grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and clothing stores. It makes no sense to me that, considering all the things we are able to do (such as carrying the world in my pocket in the form of a smartphone), I still have to buy cereal in sealed plastic bags and toothpaste in non-recyclable plastic tubes. How could we have not solved this problem already?

Consumer demand hasn’t existed up until now, but it’s slowly gaining momentum. People haven’t realized the extent of plastic’s reach, even to the most remote Pacific islands. We’re starting to notice grotesque images of victims like Tina the Turtle, who are literally drowning in plastic. Soon we’ll no longer be comfortable buying food and carrying it home in plastic that’s useful for a matter of minutes; it will feel deeply unsettling and unethical.

As awareness spread, hopefully scientists, storeowners, governments, and innovators will take notice, too, and start prioritizing the development of biodegradable, non-persistent alternatives.

Tags: Oceans | Plastic Bags | Plastics | Pollution | Shopping

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