This may be shocking at first to you, reader, since an amazing amount of communication is stating the contrary all day long. But as often a more balanced approach, the “middle way” may help us to understand better the playground we are in and therefore take better decision.
A very good example is plastic bags, they have now been banned in many countries and replaced by alternatives deemed less contaminating among which biobased plastics, paper, cotton or reusable bags. However a proper life cycle analysis (a comprehensive study of all impacts generated by a product during all its life and end of life, including impacts generated by material needed to produce it) demonstrates that paper, cotton or biobased plastics have much more dramatic environmental impacts and that a recyclable bag is only less contaminating after it is being reused in the range of 50 times.
On the other hand plastic bags represent less than 1 or 2% of all plastic waste generated, so it could seem that we make a lot of noise from not a lot of real impact, especially if going to the supermarket with you reusable bags make you feel that you have accomplished your duty for the environment.
Here are some sources where you can check what we are saying:
The Danish Environmental Protection Agency / LCA of grocery carrier bags: https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf
Kimmel, Sc.D., Robert M., “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags in Common Use in the United States” (2014). Environmental Studies. 6. https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cudp_environment/6
Life Cycle Assessment of shopping bag out of bioplastics – and its comparison with other shopping bags
Greene, Joseph. (2020). Life Cycle Assessment of Reusable and Single-use Plastic Bags in California. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268297813_Life_Cycle_Assessment_of_Reusable_and_Single-use_Plastic_Bags_in_California
We are not saying that we should go back to plastic bags, we love the awareness this has created! Some people will tell you this was all for the awareness, maybe they are right.But what we should learn from this case is to think twice before grabbing paper bag and feeling so good about it and that tackling 1 or 2% of a problem maybe is a step but that´s far from being sufficient.
Plastic has benefits for our society and even for our environment, if we look at it in the context world in which we live in. What we are saying here is that most probably the environment was in better shape when we were not using oil, petrochemicals, technology and so on but if we look at solving a problem now we have to do it in the context we have now.
Notable benefits as we all know are deriving from its versatility of properties, being often very light but also resistant, flexible, inert and so on, making it a great replacement of materials like metals, wood, glass which can have in our context worse impacts on the environment.
So what´s so wrong with Plastic that we are all so concerned about it?
If we recall the time plastic bags where around or go to places where they are still around (with their best friend, foam containers) it´s quite simple: They are all around the place! Flown by the winds they cover our surroundings. And that, obviously is the real problem, Plastic waste has nothing to do abandoned in nature!