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The plastics problem

Written By: - Date published: 7:10 am, December 9th, 2019 - 5 comments
Categories: climate change, eugenie sage - Tags: , , , ,

Stuff are reporting that the government has moved to ban another set of single-use plastics like cotton buds and non-compostible fruit stickers. Home composters across the land will be cheered about the latter.

The ban follows the Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand report, by Chief Science Advisor Prof Juliet Gerrard, and will include hard to recycle PVC and polystyrene (think takeaway containers and meat trays). The ban is low hanging fruit for the government, but good to see this being rolled out as part of our political and social change around disposable plastics and pollution. The report itself is much broader and “reaffirms and extends the Government’s ambitious plan to reduce waste”. Thank-you the Greens.

The plan’s At a Glance document is here. This is solid, comprehensive and deep work from Eugenie Sage and covers the need for changes in thinking and behaviour, R&D, new infrastructure and materials, and “perhaps most importantly, citizens who are ready to form a new relationship with plastics are all needed to shift to a more sustainable use of plastics”.

On that last note, we need to dig deeper. Not only is the juxaposition of cotton bud and plastic fork bans with inaction on climate change and deep sea oil drilling permits jarring (oil drilling begets plastic and oil spills), but the public and business sector seem to be still largely trying to green a completely unsustainable system and hoping it will somehow all just work out. I can see the deeper systems change in Sage’s approach and I hope she is empowered to act on that, but I think NZ is still lagging on understanding what is needed beyond greening our waste stream.

Jacinda Ardern says that the number one thing she gets letters about is reducing waste. But I have to wonder if at the moment we are driven by anxiety of what we can easily see.

Replacing petroplastics with alternatives is a no brainer, but are we going to feel better when that West Coast beach is littered with bamboo cutlery and hemp coke bottles? Will we then start to make the connections between our highly consumerist lifestyles and pollution? At what point do we dig deeper and see the whole picture?

I’m pleasantly surprised to see the report addressing some of these issues, and, equally importantly, engaging in systems thinking. In looking at changing our relationship with plastics,

We need to start treating plastic as a valuable resource that is reused and repaired, rather than a resource that is cheap and disposable

There’s acknowledgement of the need to focus on reuse as the new norm. They’re also looking at cradle to grave systems,

If we look at this from a systems view, rather than simply the bit in front of us at any given time then some of the things to consider are:

By definition all disposable products are in the end potentially waste, including bioplastics. In sustainable systems, there is no such thing as waste. All end and by-products become materials for other use within the system eg composting bioplastics can produce fertiliser for growing more source material to make bioplastics. But you have to design the system to do that from the ground up.

While there is an encouraging shift from faux, ‘degradable’ bioplastics to home-compostible bioplastics, most products will be going into the council-managed waste stream (or directly into the environment). I can think of one ethically-minded company already offering to take packaging back for commercial composting, but they’re adding additional food miles to do that. The question here is whether in our capitalist system central or local government will mandate design of sustainable, closed loop systems, or instead will it be left to the market with a bit of guidance from authorities and thus create another set of waste problems.

Bioplastics and other plastic alternatives still need to come from somewhere. Hemp and bamboo are materials that can be utilised in a sustainable system, but we still need land to do that and how that land is managed can be destructive or regenerative. Further, is anyone doing the accounting for the amount of land needed for a straight swap from plastics to alternatives? I doubt it. The kinds of systems and infrastructure we build around bioplastics and recycling need to take into account long term goals for climate mitigation and future resource needs in a volatile climate and resource-constrained world.

Physics dictates that in a finite system there is only so much produce from any given set of resources. Fossil fuels have given a brief few centuries of artificial excess, but nature isn’t the goose that laid the golden egg. Our perpetually expanding economy and population increase ignores physical reality. Upshot of all this is that we are over-consuming. Yes we can have hemp coke bottles and bamboo take away cutlery, but if that keeps us in ecological overshoot we’re ignoring the increasingly dangerous elephant in the living room.

Big industry is critical for many things but it is grossly overused. It is not even close to looking at sustainability in a meaningful sense. All power to the Greens for the headway they’re making here on transforming industry to sustainability. What needs to follow is not a green revolution, but a transition to post-industrial society. This freaks some people out because they think without industry life would be nasty, brutish and short. But the vision others hold is of a regenerative revolution based in meeting human needs via systems that are designed with ecological intelligence that respect and takes their cues from nature. A different kete of inanga altogether, but we still get to live good lives.

A starting point for such a revolution is the acknowledgement of the limits of growth, and then designing for what truly matters. Funnily enough this is precisely what gives us our best chance at climate mitigation and adaption. All roads lead to this, and the plastics problem is no exception.

5 comments on “The plastics problem”

  1. Sanctuary 1

    About half of all the plastic ever manufactured has been made since Katy Perry memorably Kissed a girl and liked it. Half, in a decade.

    Plastic pollution is now a black swan catastrophe for third world countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, in fact all countries with dysfunctional attitudes to cleaning up after themselves. In a decade it has come from nowhere to being a gigantic crisis that threatens entire oceanic ecosystems.

    How is taking urgent steps to start to do something about that something that can be mocked?

    • weka 1.1

      MSM's initial reporting was about a ban on cotton buds and fruit stickers. This was ahead of the report release. It did look like a bit pathetic (and leftie twitter loves to mock).

      • Herodotus 1.1.1

        If you have younger family – At Christmas just view the packaging (Much unnecessary or over the top) that gets discarded/trashed.

        As an aside, received a reusable coffee cup as a present with lid, the size of a medium takeaway cup so can be used at cafes. For those not sure what to buy this Christmas an idea, it has saved on many disposables being used. It maybe only a very little bit but every bit helps 😇

  2. David Mac 2

    Would you consider plastic surgery duck?

    If I had a piece wedged in my bowel yes Quack.

    If only we could make products with the longevity of the stuff they came wrapped in.

    Bloody plastic. I stretch it over frozen peas and use it for 45 seconds and it's hanging around for 40 years!

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