photo: Geof Wilson
Once we've gotten our priorities straight regarding reducing the massive amount of oil we use in transportation--largely because we've built our communities into places where most people need to drive rather than walk, bike or take public transit--there's another conceptually big issue that needs to tackled: What to do with plastic? Now, plastics alone don't amount to much out of a single barrel of oil compared to liquid fuels, but their utter ubiquity in our lives combined with the resultant massive waste management and water pollution issues means we've got some serious contemplation to do.
Removing Plastics From Our Lives Will Be Tough
As when I wrote about oil and transportation, I don't claim to have all the answers to solving our great plastic problem, but just want to encourage readers to start thinking about solutions seriously. Simply avoiding using all plastic is both impractical personally and impossible communally at the moment--as initially empowering it feels to say.
The only solution is to collect it all; it will remain for a millennia otherwise. Photo: Zianub Razvi via flickr.
Disposable Plastics Must Go, Period...
The first way we need to address our plastic usage is acknowledging that disposable plastic products (with perhaps a few exceptions, medical usage pops to mind) are the most inane and inappropriate use of the material. To expend all that energy into extracting oil, or even raising plants for bioplastics, and then turning it into a material that never biodegrades, clogs waterways, and fills landfills, and yet using it in one-time use applications is absolutely ludicrous. Only by entirely ignoring what happens to the material once its intended lifetime is over is there any sense in it.
Some of the solution to this is habitual--getting out of the habit of using disposable plastics products, be they cups or pens or cling wrap, and favoring product reuse and heirloom design--while some of it is bigger. If we place even a modicum of effort into it, more environmentally friendly, yet durable solutions to very nearly every current use of disposable plastic can be developed. From packaging to end product, this is a problem that design and technology can indeed fully solve. We don't need massive policy changes to accomplish it.
But Plastic May Still Be The Right Material For The Job, Sometimes
The second way is to recognize that when we want a product to last for generations and/or absolutely requires the uniquely durable and malleable characteristics of the material, then plastics may well be the best solution--provided we close the loop from manufacturing to disposal so that plastic pollution can be reigned in.
The hippo water roller pictured above at left may be one of the most appropriate uses of plastic out there--lasting forever and radically reducing the workload of people using it to fetch water. Photo: Cristina Bejarano via flickr.
Plastic Needn't & Shouldn't Be The Default Material Choice
Which isn't to say that for many, many uses where plastic use is now the norm we couldn't or shouldn't use all-natural materials, we absolutely should. But there still may be times when plastic is appropriate. If we radically reduce our use of oil in other areas of our society, and abolish through habit and design the use of nearly all disposable plastics, then the plastic use which remains will far less of a waste disposal or pollution issue.
A rough way to think about it (exceptions occur always): If it's disposable = nearly never use plastic and ensure recycling of waste. If it's non-disposable = is there a non-oil based material that will work as well and doesn't have the disposal issues or some other outweighing energy use or environmental concern? If so then use it. If not, and the product is both intended to last a lifetime or longer and needs the material characteristics of plastic, then perhaps use it--provided disposal is taken fully into consideration.
More on Plastic:
Plastic Bags Used in DC Drop From 22 Million to 3 Million a Month
Is New Biodegradable Plastic the Answer?
The Plastiki's Quest, and Questioning Plastic
We're Taking 100 Million Tons of Sea Creatures From the Ocean & Replacing Them With Plastic: Sylvia Earle