Sustainable swaps?

14th July 2021

Web ocean plastic credit istock 1205341136



The popular solutions to the plastic pollution crisis aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem, says Simone Codrington

Plastic pollution has received increasing attention during the past few years, with a rise in alternatives to plastic straws, discounts for using reusable takeaway coffee cups, and plastic-free shops popping up online and on our streets. But while plastic reduction is a positive step for the zero-waste movement, what compromises does it lead to in other areas of sustainability?

Carbon vs plastic

Following the viral photo of the sea turtle with a plastic straw up its nose, the mainstream war on plastic began and society started reacting. The zero-waste lifestyle movement is led largely by a number of millennial women who started sharing their tips online on how to live zero waste. Their blogs and journeys have resulted in quite a following for the movement, with more of the general population making changes such as carrying a reusable bottle and switching to plastic-free toiletries.

The demand for plastic-free alternatives has highlighted a gap in the market, which new companies have started to fill by starting zero-waste stores. These stores offer consumers the ability to refill existing containers and purchase natural, vegan, plastic-free and cruelty-free options, and have been a game-changer for the zero-waste movement, as well as encouraging people to support local businesses. However, if these stores are not easily accessible via sustainable travel methods, does the waste reduction outweigh the carbon emissions and air pollution resulting from driving? Is it solving the waste issue but contributing to the climate crisis?

Waste vs plastic

Many existing businesses have started switching single-use items such as straws, bags and cups from plastic to paper. However, many people are questioning: how much more sustainable are the paper versions, and aren’t they just creating a different issue? Once a paper straw is used, for example, it is much more difficult to compost or recycle – especially if it is still lined with plastic. This just creates another waste stream, with circular economy barriers.

Equally importantly, how much of an impact are these swaps having on the global plastic pollution issue? Switching from single-use plastic to single-use paper may reduce our dependence on plastics and our inadequate reuse and disposal of them, but in order to really create a circular economy, the change must be considered in a more transparent, whole-lifecycle assessment.

Fish vs plastic

According to the Ellen MacArthur foundation, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050. The Netflix programme Seaspiracy highlighted the fact that plastic straws are actually a drop in the ocean in terms of their contribution to ocean plastic, at around 0.03%; fishing nets, on the other hand, account for 46% of the 1.6m-square kilometre Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The damage caused by commercial overfishing not only contributes to the plastic problem, but also disrupts our ocean and climate systems, and ultimately exacerbates the climate crisis.

We may not yet have the solution to all of these issues but, if we want to see significant impacts, in addition to making the small changes such as refusing plastic straws and bags, perhaps we should be focusing our attention on reducing our consumption of fish.

Simone Codrington is co-chair of IEMA Futures.

Image credit: iStock


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