Plastic Peril

From strangled seabirds to trapped turtles to the giant floating island and the discovery of nano-particles in the flesh of the fish we eat, we are all aware of the horrors of widely distributed plastic waste, and so it is only right that we refrain from the use of plastic bags and wrappings – at least so long as there is not an effective system of collection and consolidation of such waste. But I take issue with some of the ways this is interpreted.

As I learned from the latest (May 30) issue of The Village Green, an Australian group called the Minderoo Foundation has produced a report which names and shames the companies responsible for plastic pollution. But I am surprised by their emphasis on “the base of the supply chain that make ‘polymers’ – the building blocks of all plastics – almost exclusively from fossil fuels.”

The GHG emissions attributed to plastics by Zheng&Suh in a letter at Nature Climate Change(cited as a reference by Mindaroo) are mostly from the energy used in their production, and from the assumption that they will end life in incinerators (which are the same for all kinds of polymer source, since plant based polymers could otherwise serve as a Carbon sink if not used for plastics and then burned).

But a proper energy transition (which is essential in any case) should resolve the former, and the current practice of burning waste is certainly not what I would recommend as the most climate-friendly alternative. In fact, collecting and burying plastic waste seems to me to be a potentially significant means of carbon sequestration. So, contrary to many who expound on this topic, I would suggest that what we need to do is not reduce our use of plastics but rather increase it – with the proviso that all plastic waste be separated and stored in a secure burial place (such as may be provided, for example, by fossil carbon extraction – eg old coal mines and oil wells).

Please let me know if you see anything wrong in the above analysis.

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