Who could be against a war on plastic? Lots of people, actually

Joshua Livestro
Banksy Grafitti in London
Even with an apparent success story like single-use plastic bags, the alternatives don’t necessarily turn out to be environmentally better (Source: Getty)

The Conservative party conference is just around the corner, and with the news so often dominated by Brexit, it’s a good moment to consider some of the more domestic policy ideas we’re sure to hear about. On plastic, for example.

Earlier this year, Theresa May used a big speech on environmental issues to launch a “war on plastic”. The Prime Minister certainly has public opinion on her side. Emotions are running high on the subject: a recent Treasury consultation on a possible new tax to discourage the use of single-use plastics received a record 162,000 submissions.

But as in all other wars, early enthusiasm must eventually give way to the hard realities on the ground. And that’s where this war immediately runs into problems.

Read more: Plastic bag charge could double to 10p and be extended to all shops

The Prime Minister defined victory as “eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042”. Let’s leave aside the fact that she expects her country to fight this war for another 25 years, and focus on the “avoidable waste” bit. It’s the sort of target politicians love to use. After all, who isn’t in favour of getting rid of “avoidable waste”?

Quite a lot of people, as it turns out.

People in the disabled community for example. Replacing single-use plastic straws with paper straws might sound like a no-brainer, but for them it could literally be the difference between life and death. When the paper combines with the liquid it transports, it can become mushy, thereby forming a choking hazard.

Paper straws also don’t perform a number of other essential functions of a plastic straw: they don’t bend, and they can’t withstand higher temperatures. “I don’t have the luxury of a plastic-free life”, one disabled person wrote in an opinion piece in The Guardian. “Over the years, I’ve had to learn that being green does not always sit comfortably with my access needs.”

Disabled organisations aren’t the only groups asking for special dispensation. The medical profession is also calling for pragmatism.

Apparently the only thing that can help to keep medical equipment sterile and safe is single-use plastic. Doctors can’t safely perform a blood test without it, let alone an operation.

Food producers are another such category. Single-use plastics are much better than any other form of packaging at keeping food fresh for longer.

We can of course decide to get rid of plastic food packaging, but that would mean we need to produce a lot more food, at the cost of using up scarce land and water resources.

Scientists will have to be exempted too. They need gloves, syringes, sample bags, and various other single-use plastic tools for their laboratory work.

By the time we’re done exempting all the users who really rely on single-use plastics, May’s war on plastic would be reduced to a bar brawl.

It turns out that it’s not actually that easy to decide what types of single-use plastic to get rid of. Even with an apparent success story like single-use plastic bags, the alternatives don’t necessarily turn out to be environmentally better.

A paper bag, for example, needs to be reused four times before it has the same relatively low environmental impact as a single-use plastic bag.

Replacing smaller single-use plastic bags with larger bags suited for repeated use also means producing more of the kind of higher environmental impact plastics that are much more difficult to recycle. And reusable containers are a nice idea, but they need water and detergent to clean.

We haven’t even mentioned yet the kind of concerns Conservative governments usually have about any kind of regulation: the impact of a proposed plastic tax on household budgets and employment.

At the risk of sounding too practical for politics, maybe the government should explore alternatives to “war”, like investing in recycling facilities or enforcing anti-littering laws, before launching its 25 year campaign?

Otherwise it might see the war on plastic go the way of other “wars”, like the ones on poverty and drugs: easily declared, impossible to win.

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