Whether there is an alternative to the total ban on disposable plastic products, primarily packages? In this article we discuss the problems of the decomposition of polymers in the environment, the traditional myth of so-called «responsible consumption» and various approaches to solving the problem of the negative impact of plastics on the environment.
Disposable plastic products are a real threat to the environment. The problem is that in terms of consumer properties there is no worthy alternative. Therefore, when retired politicians, schoolchildren, Elons-Musks-and-Gretas-Tunbergs together environmental radicals begin to discuss this issue, there is only one way out – to ban everything.

A more civilized option is not to break the current consumption model and not re-educate people, but to provide them with a reasonable alternative that will drastically reduce the negative impact of plastic on the environment.

Ban on plastic bags around the world

More than 90 countries around the world have already forbidden the use of disposable plastic bags on their territory. The last (to the moment of publishing this article) was Panama (summer 2019). Another 36 governments restrict the circulation of these products through various taxes. Oddly enough, the African continent is advanced in this regard. Other participants in the world community regard the possibility of introducing a ban on disposable plastic products in one way or another.
In Kenya, you can go to jail for four years for using a plastic bag. Therefore, the Kenyan schoolgirl Hilda Gaceri Bundi, for lack of money for a schoolbag, came up with the idea of carrying her stuff in dried banana leaves. In 2017, her photo touched the whole "progressive world".
The Council of the European Union in May 2019 adopted new rules for disposable plastic products, including a ban on cotton buds, straws, dishes and a number of other goods by 2021 (let's see how Corona will move these plans apart). For other plastic products, manufacturers will be obliged to put special labels on them and tighten requirements for their disposal.
Еuropean polymer manufacturers have called this directive too vague and populist. EU countries cause only 2% of the world's oceans pollution by plastic. The document does not differentiate plastic products, which can lead to problems in the use of «perfectly recyclable plastic».
India went even further in its environmental ambitions. Here they plan to completely abandon any disposable plastic products by 2022. Large companies, such as IKEA, are also trying to implement similar campaigns. In Russia, the ban on plastic bags has so far been postponed for the future; a phased reduction in their production is expected.

Plastic apocalypse

Plastic is awful. Here are some of the most widely circulated facts of plastic contamination of the planet:
  • About 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced in the world since the early 1950s. Half of this volume has been produced in the last 15 years. By 2050, this figure is expected to double.
  • Each year, about 8 million of plastic articles are dumped into the ocean, mainly by coastal countries. Plastic makes 73% of garbage on world beaches.
  • Every minute one million plastic bottles are thrown around the world. Less than half of them are recycled.
  • Every minute, two million plastic bags are used in the world (from 500 billion to 1 trillion annually, of which 23 billion in sole New York).
  • Plastic caused the death of 1.1 million birds and animals that lived near the coastline of the oceans. It is believed that almost 90% of all birds and fish on the planet contain microparticles of plastic in their bodies.
  • On average, every person in the world consumes 70,000 microplastic particles annually.
  • The average usage time for a plastic bag is 12 minutes.
Plastic in the ocean
Plastic in the ocean

Plastic and responsible consumption

Environmental bans are great and appropriate. To doubt this is the same as to spit in Greta Tunberg's flawless childish soul. But in order for these restrictions to begin to work, it is necessary to radically restructure the system of social thinking. Unless, of course, you take into account Kenya's experience and simply put people in jail for having a plastic bag or disposable sticks for cleaning ears.

It is quite easy to talk about responsible consumption when crossing the Atlantic Ocean on an expensive yacht with the best sailing team from Monaco. Books about the ecological apocalypse are scattered in millions of copies. It's good to practice responsible consumption when there is an Asian or African "garbage can" nearby, where you can take and bury garbage collected supposedly separately.
You can order a «separate» garbage collection today in almost any major city in Russia. For effective event organizers, this is the perfect solution. Virtually no one then watches that the garbage carefully collected in separate bags is loaded in one heap and treated with it in the same way as with ordinary.
For normal disposal, one has to properly separate all these wastes, wash and disinfect it thoroughly, which will take several hours of work of the volunteers, and only after that some part of it can actually be recycled.

Modern man, ideally, is only capable of separate collection of garbage, and even then not always and not everywhere (if you do not take into account small mountain villages in Switzerland). In addition, separate collection of garbage does not solve the problem of processing various plastics and their processing in general except by burning and turning into liquid fuel.

Responsible consumption of «developed» countries turned into a massive hoax after other Asian countries began to refuse to import waste into their territory: after China that were Philippines and Malaysia. From a purely ideological problem, plastic suddenly became a real headache in Europe and the USA. It turned out that the collection and recycling of household waste in civilized countries is far from ideal.

We have repeatedly claimed that the only reasonable and most optimal solution for garbage disposal in modern conditions is to incinerate it. We have explained what technologies exist for this, using specific examples.

If we consider paper bags as an alternative to disposable plastic bags, undoubtedly, such a reorientation will do more harm to the environment.
Americans love for soft toilet paper depletes Canada's «green lungs». Its production accounts for 23% of the Canadian pulp and paper industry. Since 1996, more 28 million acres of Canadian boreal forests have been cut down for these needs (and how it will shift after COVID outbreak – only God knows).
According to the most cited study, the production of one paper bag takes three times more energy and 17 times more water than the production of plastic. Frankly saying, it was commissioned by an organization representing American manufacturers of plastic packaging.

There is more balanced analytics from the UK Environmental Agency. The report indicates that, even in order to simply equalize the resources spent on the production of a plastic bag, a paper bag and a cotton bag, the paper bag must be reused at least three times. The cotton bag must withstand at least 131 trips to the store.

Paper is not 100% alternative to plastic, either from an economic point of view or from an environmental point of view.

An alternative to plastic bags?

The main problem of modern plastics is that they are too good for the consumers. They are durable, resistant to relatively high and low temperatures, oxygen and chemically active substances, have water-repellent properties. True, all those additives that make the plastic bag so ideal prevent its biodegradation. This is the dilemma.

The main thing is that a plastic bag is dramatically cheap. At the checkout counter in a supermarket it costs practically nothing regarding the amount of the check. Its practical life cycle is a maximum of a couple of hours, then it is thrown away, and due to its excellent technical characteristics, it cannot decompose independently in nature, at least for a time commensurate with human life.
Plastic bags in the store
Plastic bags in the store
Distribution networks receive 40-60 % margin on plastic disposable bags and annual profit of hundreds of millions (in any money), this is the best-selling product in stores. In 2018, 42 billion plastic bags and packages were produced in Russia (this is 500 thousand tons of polymers in total, if we assume that the package weighs 10-15 g on average).

With other disposable plastic products everything is also not so simple. They also pollute the environment. Recycling of plastic cups, ear buds, lids, small zip bags, plastic containers is extremely difficult for the following reasons:
  • small size, because of which it is difficult to collect and sort them;
  • different types of plastic (polyethylene in a bag, a polypropylene cap and a bottle of PET - they cannot be recycled together);
  • biological contamination, which does not allow reusage of products into food production without special efforts.

From environmental radicalism to technologies

The problem of pollution of nature with plastic is hyperactive. The planet needs to be saved. For this, there are, in fact, two main options. The first is to ban everything at all: the production and use of any plastic indiscriminately. Ideally, limit the consumption of water and oxygen for people. If you do not go into details, this is what various radical ecological sects, such as Greenpeace, usually offer.

The second approach is more scientific, it involves the development and usage of materials capable to safely decompose in natural conditions in a short time - under the influence of heat, humidity, microorganisms, ultraviolet rays, etc.

In our reality any violent methods for ideological restructuring of a person and turning him into a «responsible consumer» with the built-in Zero Waste program are utopian. To do this, the whole world needs to be sent back to the USSR: to use plastic packaging extremely carefully, wash bags, carefully pack them in a bag and use them until holes, go to the store with a string bag and can, go out into the nature with a set of reusable dishes. However, that is what lots of lefties do, but it is way with no perspective and exit as most of people like to live in capitalism.

The best solution is to maintain the current consumption model, which the world economy is based on, but to find (or choose) correct technical solution that can radically reduce the harm to the use of plastic products, primarily disposable bags, to the environment.

In the next article, we will talk in detail about what are «biodegradable packages», how they differ from each other, and whether they can really help reduce the negative impact on nature.
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