Ten Wonderful Things about Plastic

One straw, up one turtle’s nostril, and here we are, on the road to banning all plastics … Typical!

The activist feeding frenzy against plastic has been going on for decades but with the recent images being multiplied on social media and the BBC it has reached its hyperbolic zenith this year. The calls to do something – the sense of urgency – to ban plastic (from straws to bags to packaging to, well, … anything and everything) has come to encompass the latest social media episode of Age of Stupid insanity. You might go to prison in California for serving someone a straw.

The drive to ban plastics, now being spearheaded by those who should know better in the European Commission, has become a cause célèbre for all activists. What’s not to like about this latest attack on technology?

  1. Plastic is not a natural product. Enough said, it must be bad. An image of plastic in a pristine natural site is symbolic of the tragedy of mankind’s careless destruction of all things good.
  2. Worse, plastic is manufactured by big chemical companies. This means no right-minded person would ever even try to defend it.
  3. Plastic is light so poorly-managed waste floats. NGOs and BBC journalists seeking job security can easily find photo-ops when the tides are right in poor Asian countries with no waste management system.
  4. Rich people detest plastic (Tupperware or silverware … Hmm?) so elitist green campaign groups will always have a guaranteed source of funding.
  5. Microplastics have become the Holy Grail for activists. Showing up in our bodies at unknown levels while doing unknown things, even those who are rational will feel outraged.

In other words, there are winners all around dancing on the grave of polymer technology. Naturopaths can enrich their coffers, feel good about themselves (in their typically smug “save-the-world” manner) and nobody would ever dare challenge their ideological purity with facts. Retailers and food manufacturers are joining in the plastic-free party, raising prices and margins to shift to glass packaging, leaving others to clean up their mess while improving their reputation with the loud eco-minority. Regulators drunk on precaution can bandy about terms like “Plastic-free Europe” and earn credibility among the chattering elite as benign stewards without ever being held to account. Who could possibly be against the present plastics ban-a-thon?

Well, the Risk-Monger has a few things to say.

  • The facts and science behind the anti-plastics campaigns are woeful and biased.
  • The proposed regulations against plastic will once again hurt the poor and the disenfranchised.
  • Social media has created a series of myths about plastics so well-rehearsed and repeated that most consider them as simply common sense.
  • The present prejudice has been hyped by some unsavoury actors with interests in alternatives to plastics.
  • Many of these alternatives to plastic are not at all sustainable but regulators seem to be asleep at the wheel.
  • We are going to do away with some amazing technologies because the naturopathic cult populists guiding our societal narrative see an opportunity.

This is pure madness and once again it seems we are powerless to stop this march into unreason. So the Risk-Monger is planning a series of blogs under the “Save Plastic” title. In the second blog, I will look at the myths about plastic (the source of the garbage patch, dioxins, human poisoning …). I will also write on the industries whose less sustainable alternatives will benefit from the NGO activists’ full body slam on all things plastic. It is meant to challenge the simplistic black or white thinking of these campaign artists (Natural: Yey! Plastic: Boo!). The first in the series though will be positive and look at how plastic has brought us so many amazing benefits.

Before starting, and before my trolls get too excited at another chance to “shrill-shill” me, let me state at the outset that I have been considered ‘persona non grata’ by the plastics industry for the last five years … ever since I had insulted a particularly distasteful little bastard whom the industry had naively been courting favour. I still have the email from the PlasticsEurope manager telling me to kindly go to hell and I keep it as a sober reminder of how industry can be as foolish as the activists who keep biting their extended hands. Like other issues, I have no interest in the game and am pretty sure the good people who make plastics, including a former employer of mine, will share neither my work nor my methods. In any case, I feel it’s just not right that these naturopath zealots’ lies will once again create a torrent of fear-mongered reputational damage, cause widespread public suffering and loss of benefits for their mindless drive for eco-religious purity and fundraising greed. Since the plastics industry seems to be OK with thinking they are the second slowest zebra in the chemicals herd and don’t want to see how their sustainable innovations are being blackballed and systematically replaced by inferior alternatives, we can once again agree to disagree on the industry’s methods for their managed demise.

Ban all Plastic: Today’s Virtue Signal

A rational response would be that no one is planning to ban all plastics but Geez Louise Mr Monger, we are needlessly using so many bags and straws. Maybe it is a good idea to use less plastic (fewer bags, less packaging, drink from a cup when possible …) just like we should reduce pesticide use, take fewer painkillers and drive our cars less. But the way the activist community has skewed the policy process with their campaign-driven precautionary approach, decisions have now become a virtue signalling event driven by purpose-laden ideologues. Plastic is bad so it must, at all costs, be removed (with no rational consideration of the alternatives, lost benefits or means to manage risks). Anyone who does not read from that script is a bad person and will pay the appropriate price among social media tribes.

Industry has tried to temper the irrationality with many voluntary initiatives, take-back policies and product stewardship initiatives, but that has only provoked the virtue-imbibed. Virtue signalling (“Look at how good I am!”) has a high tolerance for contradictions, so we nod appreciatively when yogurt is served in non-returnable glass pots because anything is better than “Demon Plastic”. To a zealot needing to deliver clear results to funders, using less plastic is not a critical success factor – we must go plastic-free. These are men of purpose, women of ideals! So too is the case in the political realm. We don’t vote for the person who makes sound, pragmatic decisions, we vote for the person who has the good intentions.

220px-frans_timmermans_2013
Mr Natural

Policymakers in Brussels lack the courage to stand up to such irrationality couched in faux-virtue. In the last decade, EU policymakers have abandoned their risk-manager role, favouring decision by precaution. They can no longer trust individuals to make their own decisions (“Keep out of reach of children” became “It’s a poison! Keep off the market”). It is easier for policymakers to impose a ban than to implement and monitor risk management processes like emission controls, recycling programmes and takeback schemes. Is it due to the lack of trust in the process or are policymakers themselves seeking virtue signalling opportunities? Is precaution the virtue signalling tool for policymakers? Banning plastics (like banning crop protection tools and nuclear energy) is an easy strategic call: Look good by being seen to be doing good (even if science and rationality are not on your side).

The way to deal with those self-esteem-challenged who have built virtue signalling into their decision-making process (ban pesticides, Renewables Now!, stop chemicals…) is to shout out the benefits of the products and processes they are trying to demonise. This is my philosophy on risk communications. A consequence is that I portray the activist zealot cults for what they are: mean, awful, Machiavellian virtue shamers (and after nine years of this game, they love me for that).

What follows is the (evil) Risk-Monger’s attempt to demonstrate some benefits of plastics.

Plastic is everywhere (and thank God for that!). It is light-weight, durable, comparatively cheap to manufacture and easily malleable. Plastics represent innovative solutions, sustainable alternatives and colourful products that defined generations (from vinyl records to durable synthetic fabrics to smart-phones). Food poisoning is rare thanks to safe packaging, energy and transportation more accessible and consumption more practical. The promises of nanoplastics should improve the quality of life for my children. When I think of valuable consumer goods, from deodorant to running shoes, I think of plastic.

Plastic is wonderful!

Ten Wonderful Things about Plastic

10 Wonderful things about plastic

1. Plastic packaging protects food

Unless you want to take an animal home and slaughter it yourself, you will likely need to rely on several types of plastic packaging to protect your meat from the elements, cross-contamination and bacteria. That plastic lining inside your tin can or drinks carton prevents metals from migrating into your food. Rats and insects love dry foods like rice and pasta … so how do you think they are kept safe during transport and storage? Without plastics, we would have serious food safety issues like E. coli, spoilage, infestation and fungal and bacteria issues. People who think plastic food packaging is unnecessary either grow all the food they need in their window boxes or have no idea how food is manufactured, maintained or transported.

2. Plastic can be easily recycled

If Europeans seriously want a circular economy (actually, most don’t really care), then EU officials had better start promoting plastics. Different plastics can be recycled or reused with low energy or waste management costs. For those end-of-life plastic products not easily repurposed, as petroleum products, the energy can be recovered through incineration or methane capture. In the third blog of this series, the alternatives to plastics will be seen to be more environmentally costly to reuse, recycle or manage. How many high-production cost organic cotton bags are in your garage or at the bottom of your closet? And how often do you buy plastic bin-liner bags when you used to use old shopping bags?

3. Plastic reduces food waste

A cucumber wrapped in plastic will last around three times longer than one with no shrink-wrap. Fresh vegetables without packaging (from carrots to lettuce) will wilt as soon as I put them in the fridge and while elitist foodies can get their servants to go to the fresh-market every morning to make them a salad (if they don’t grow all of the ingredients in their posh roof gardens), most of us working people only have time for one or two trips to the supermarket per week. Those apples or strawberries bouncing around in a paper bag will be half-way to juice before I’m half-way home. How much added food waste will we create if the naturopaths let nature do its work on my fruit and vegs? Retailers of course won’t mind – saving costs on packaging while having me make extra trips to the shops once I clean all the slime from the bottom of my fridge drawer. But maybe the rest of us should wake up and demand technology to keep our food fresh and safe.

bagged20salad20large-560x0_q80_crop-smart
Probably the greatest innovation of the 20th century for improving diets

Then there is the question of nutritional value not only from the deterioration of the food from the time of harvest (which plastic reduces) but also the ease and convenience of packaging fruit and vegetables. Do not underestimate the impact bagged lettuce and pre-made salads have made on healthier diets over the last few decades. Where making a salad had been a chore, today it has become an easy add-on to any meal. Many of the elitist foodies will want you to believe there are risks of pathogens or nutrition loss from bagged salads, but these are malicious myths.

4. Plastic is more sustainable

When I think of sustainable innovations today, I think of plastic. Lighter automotive plastics not only reduce running costs and save fuel, but allow for more efficient transportation manufacturing costs. Polyurethane foam insulation is more effective at reducing home heating and cooling costs than older alternatives. The specialty polymers going into solar panels enable cheaper energy conversion efforts (especially as solar calendering processes advance). The “circular economy” should be renamed the “plastic economy” (where repurposing other materials consumes energy and wastes water while recycling plastics recovers energy). Whenever I see a “green-conscious” brand using glass packaging, I immediately think: What a waste! A waste of water and energy in rebottling. A waste of fuel and space in transporting the heavier materials. A waste of minerals given that most glass is not reused 20 times (the amount required to justify the environmental burden of manufacturing the glass). But in the Age of Stupid, glass is portrayed as sustainable.

5. Plastic saves lives

shutterstock-100442413-blood-bags
Greenpeace fought for 40 years to ban blood bags … and lost.

The Risk-Monger has made far too many trips to the hospital this summer as his health once again has taken a turn south. Each time he is hooked up to a machine, IV or tubes, he sees plastic. His doctors put on gloves to protect patients from deadly bacteria, use plastic syringes, tubes and hoses. Speaking with a nurse about the long-standing ridiculous Greenpeace campaign against PVC blood bags (I was involved in this one going back to the 90s), she scoffed, recalling how hard it was in the days when blood came in glass bottles, awkward to use, risk of contaminants and frequently breaking. Our doctors and nurses need our support; they don’t need idiotic naturopaths taking efficient tools away from them for some unjustifiable eco-puritan ideology.

6. Plastic reduces CO2 emissions

The last 50 years has seen a continuous march of refining industrial production processes replacing older, heavier materials like steel and cement with a variety of technical polymers. As much as activist eco-zealots want to portray this as evil Father Profit burdening Mother Earth with more pollutants and chemicals than the poor planet can bear, the motive for this is industry’s commitment to product stewardship and sustainable production. Plastic is more lightweight than older industrial products from the 19th century. Lighter cars and planes with plastic parts use less fuel, saving consumers money and emitting less CO2 into the atmosphere. It costs far less energy to extrude a polymer than to mould steel or iron so the manufacturing process is more environmentally friendly. Ask any plumber or electrician if they are OK with going back to a world without plastics and watch for the expression.

7. Plastic provides fairness in consumption

Not everyone is as rich and privileged as the eco-zealots used to making the decisions for those less fortunate.  Many in poor regions or emerging economies can afford to acquire mass-produced consumer goods, furniture, clothing and household goods made from synthetic materials. With accessible polymers, the working poor can afford toys for their children, home comforts and accessible electronics. Lunches from meal trucks are affordable with disposable cutlery, providing convenience to those without means or time.

kri763sqWhile those “eco-conscious” who sip Perrier from fine crystal would prefer to see such tacky plastic banned, I think it would be unfair to deny those with limited means from enjoying material consumption and aspiring to acquire. Environmentalists are not concerned with the consequences their elitist ideology will impose on the less fortunate; whether it is higher green electricity costs creating a class of energy impoverished, barriers to affordable food production cause food security or health issues, or less access to goods causing material discomfort, activists have been fond of putting their ideology above social justice. So the zealot march to ban plastic is just one more example of green privilege beating down on the aspiring lower classes.

8. Plastic enables sexual empowerment

Religious zealots want to ban condoms, enslave women to at least three decades of servitude and increase risks of sexually-transmitted diseases. Do the environmental zealots seriously want to join hands with their irrational cousins? I keep hearing green activists talk about empowerment and women’s rights. While I am having a hard time envisioning recyclable condoms or glass vibrators, are these eco-zealots aware of how their puritan demands for a single-use plastic tax will affect preventative lifestyle choices. The liberation led by latex since the 1960s did not merely coincide with the sexual revolution. Imagine your favourite sex-toys being replaced with glass alternatives!

9. Plastic is innovative

Almost every innovative product I can think of has some type of polymer application. Sit in your car and imagine a world without plastics. My new, energy-efficient flat-screen TV was not made from repurposed peanut shells. You want to run a trail race up a mountain with all natural products, good bloody luck! The rise of 3D printing has enable engineers to find faster, better solutions with polymers. My naturopath friends who try to go a week or a month without plastic are cute but terribly misinformed (especially when they try to make their own deodorant). What they are saying is they want to reject all technology and innovation.

I am aware there are alternatives to plastics (namely in food packaging and textiles) or, in some cases, plastics can be overused or unnecessary, but only a troubled individual would then conclude we need to go without plastic or have a Plastic-free Europe. (I am beginning to notice many such individuals in the European Commission especially in the Horizon Europe alternative research strategy.)  Innovation is an iterative process, always being refined and developed. There may be cases where alternatives to plastics do exist but more often polymeric solutions are judged to be more efficient. This though must be decided on the basis of the best technology and not on some political declaration or activist campaign agenda for a blanket ban.

10. Plastic provides safety

Single-use plastics have a purpose: safety. The Risk-Monger is watching in disbelief as privileged environmentalists wage war on straws, leaving food engineers scrambling for alternatives. If you think your trip to Chipotle risks turning your tummy now, wait till the bacteria from their reusable straws passes through your colon!

Taxing single-use plastics out of existence is an attack on my personal safety.

  • When my dentist puts on a new pair of gloves, I feel safe.
  • When my fresh meat or fish are wrapped in plastic, I feel safe.
  • When my blister pack medications are sealed, I feel safe.
  • When I buy water in a developing country and the cap clicks, I feel safe.
  • When I open the child-lock on my detergents and cleaning products, I feel safe.

When activists and hotshot BBC journalists start dictating policies on eliminating beneficial single-use plastics, I certainly don’t feel safe.

But, but, … Mr Monger, there were birds with bellies full of plastic. And then they tell me there is this Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Yes, I’ll deal with that campaign abuse in the following blog.

 

Image source. It was very hard to find a clear, positive image of plastic. Most search results with the word “plastic” brought me to countless images of waste and litter.

 

 

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