Plastics have been found guilty in the court of public opinion.
We are reminded daily that plastics are the bane of humanity, and that something must be done. We demand action at the voting booth, and we vote with our wallets when we make purchasing decisions. Politicians have acted with bag bans, and companies have created new products to replace evil plastic. It is a time to rejoice, as justice has been done. Or has it?
My wife was asked recently to do jury duty. We have all seen TV shows in which a case is tried. The prosecution presents its case and then the defence is called to present the other side. In the case of plastics, we have only heard from the prosecution so far, and the defendant has been sentenced already. Is that justice?
Justice is often symbolized by a lady holding a set of scales in her hand, with the implication that Lady Justice is weighing the evidence for each side. Anyone who has been a parent knows the folly of listening to only one side of the story. If you consider yourself to be fair, and if you want to make wise choices to protect our environment, then I ask you to look at the evidence that has never been presented to you.
I have spent thousands of hours finding the science and reading it. The work was performed unpaid in the name of impartiality and presented to ensure that commercial interests are kept separate from the science. I ask that you spend a few minutes to see what peer-reviewed science has to say on the subject of plastics.
Rumor versus reality
We are all busy people, and we are pretty much forced to get our information online. I often glance at the headlines. That is harmless when it comes to Hollywood gossip, but not so great when it comes to important matters. That is when we need to look at hard data from professional, independent scientists.
The “prosecution” in this case alleges that plastic use is out of control. Is that true? In fact, plastics account for about 0.5% of the materials we use. Does that surprise you?
If you find it hard to believe, a quick search on Google should satisfy your skepticism. It has also been stated that the growth rate of plastics is out of control. But the facts, again, say no. The growth rate is roughly the same as other popular materials at 2-3% per year. While it is true to say that we should try to reduce our use of materials, blaming only plastics is neither logical, nor supported by facts.
If all plastics vanished tomorrow, we would remove just 0.5% of materials, and in exchange for that we would have no cars, no planes, no smartphones, no internet, no electricity to our homes, and the list goes on. Does that sound like a sensible tradeoff?
If cancelling plastics altogether is too painful, perhaps it is more reasonable to just get rid of single-use plastic. Scientists have looked into that, and it is true that replacing single-use items with more durable options is often beneficial. But that is not what people are doing now. At present, we are banning single-use plastic bags, straws, cutlery and so on, only to replace them with paper, metal, or glass.
Is that progress? It turns out that lifecycle analyses conclude that plastic replacement results in dramatically increased harm; meaning far more carbon dioxide, 3-4 times more waste, more energy used, more toxins, and so on. There are 28 LCA studies on bags, 2 on bank notes, 2 on straws, 5 on containers, over 10 on pipes, and 5 on mailers and packages. They conclude that plastic alternatives cause more harm, and it is not even close. Wood is the only material that is sometimes greener than plastic, but wood does not work well for many popular products we use.
Plastic alternatives cost more, too, so we are wasting our money only to increase harm, all the while feeling righteous about it. It turns out that we have unintentionally increased harm by following our gut without looking at the consequences. Pretending to be green is easy – just prance around in public swinging a cotton bag – but if we want to actually be helpful, we need to get the facts straight before acting.
Plastics have been blamed for litter as well, but scientific studies – and logic – indicate that human behaviour causes litter, so blaming materials and/or the manufacturers is unhelpful.
Back to the bank notes, did you know that 8 billion plastic bank notes have been printed annually for decades? That’s one per person on the planet every year.
How many bank notes have you seen on the beach or in a river? Probably none. Why? Because small plastic objects are never dropped when they have value. The same can be said for credit cards – small, easily lost pieces of plastic could be creating a litter problem – but they are not. That is why deposit systems work so well; once an item is given monetary value, people are careful and do not toss it away.
The “prosecution” alleges that plastics are a major threat to marine animals. Does that stand up to scrutiny? When you check large, peer-reviewed studies on the causes of death for whales, turtles, and birds, it turns out that plastic is not even mentioned because it is not a significant threat – meaning that we have been misled yet again. How about the famous “turtle with a plastic straw up its nose”? There is zero proof that it was even plastic, or that it was a straw. The Internet is obviously well known for spreading false stories and manipulating people.
We have been told that the oceans contain huge floating islands of plastic – the so-called gyres. Oceanographers have searched for years for such “islands” of plastic with no success. Gyres are just areas with more small pieces of debris than in the rest of the ocean.
Another allegation is that plastics are bad because they do not degrade. That is false, for two reasons. First, lifecycle analysis shows that short-lived materials are often less green than durable materials. Second, it turns out that plastics are prone to degradation, and they degrade more quickly than most materials such as concrete, glass, ceramics, and metal.
Plastics are only stable enough to use because of stabilizers that are added to prevent degradation. Billions of dollars are spent to stabilize plastics, and we can be certain that money would not be spent if plastics really were stable enough without them. Once again, we find that the “prosecution” is making accusations that would be classified as hearsay and inadmissible in a court of law, because they lack any evidentiary support. Items like bags contain very little stabilizer and disintegrate in under a year outdoors, whereas plastic pipes are designed to last decades, so more stabilizer is added.
Last, we need to address the infamous microplastics topic. We have been told that plastics are bad because they break down into small particles. That sounds scary until you stop and think for a moment. Are plastics really unique in that regard? Boulders break down into rocks, then gravel, then sand, then dust. Metals corrode and form rust particles. Glass shatters and crumbles. Wood rots, creating sawdust. Clearly, plastics are not unique in forming particles because all solids do that. We have a word for microscopic solid particles, and that word is “dust”, but the “prosecution” has cleverly created a new word “microplastic” to make plastic dust sound alien and dangerous.
Putting aside the choice of words, is it fair to say that microplastics – i.e. plastic dust – is dangerous? Hundreds of studies have been conducted, and there is no credible evidence of harm. That should come as no surprise because the majority of plastic and plastic dust is PE, PP, PET, and other plastics that are so safe that we eat our food from containers made from them. They are safety tested and FDA approved for that purpose.
There are some scientific papers claiming that microplastics cause harm, but when we examine those more closely, we find that they are junk largely science. For example, a World Wildlife Fund-sponsored study that claimed we eat up to a credit card of plastic per week was soundly disproven by a newer independent study that showed that it would take over 20 000 years to ingest that much plastic. Plastics make up just 0.03% of dust and 0.001% of particles we ingest.
Clearly, we have been misled by innuendo and hearsay, so who is the “prosecution”? How are they funded, and what are their motives? Several of the so-called “environmental groups” have been caught spreading misinformation, and they refuse to correct it even when the evidence shows that they were wrong. This may indicate that their true motives lie not with the environment, but with their own bank accounts. They have transformed “environmentalism” into a multibillion-dollar industry with incredible power and resources. It is very telling that Dr. Patrick Moore, former president of Greenpeace, left in disgust and publicly stated that the organization had abandoned science in favour of spreading fiction for profit.
Of course, this corruption would not have been effective had the media checked the facts and exposed the truth. In the vast majority of cases, the news media just parrot the misinformation without any attempt to fact-check. In the rare instances when they do fact-check and expose false claims, few pay attention because the lies are more exciting than the truth. A prime example is the claim that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. That has been debunked, but much of the public does not realize it, and the claim has still not been retracted by the so-called environmental group that made it.
The reason that you have not seen the real scientific evidence before is that the people charged with finding it and showing it to you have not done their jobs. The plastics industry does have trade associations, but many of them have not taken their roles seriously. They were only too happy to collect membership dues, but not so keen to deliver value and provide rebuttals to the barrage of baseless accusations. Their members have expressed disappointment, frustration, and anger to me.
Even though we hear people asking for the removal of plastics, no one is doing it because that would mean huge personal sacrifices. Despite years of constant attacks and false allegations, we have witnessed no change in plastic sales. As mentioned previously, sales continue to grow at 2-3% like other popular materials.
One would think that actions such as bag bans would have affected sales, but numerous sources have told me that such bans actually resulted in increased plastic sales because people went out and bought thick plastic trash can liners when they could no longer simply reuse their grocery bags made of much thinner plastic. Such bans are being reversed when the politicians finally check the science, and it becomes apparent that they increased harm due. Politicians are left with egg on their faces because they did not, for example, do a simple Google search of “LCA bag”.
It is human nature to believe the first version of a story we are told, and it takes real mental effort to look at new evidence that contradicts what we know. Most people will not make that effort, and that is a pity because our future depends on people caring enough to take their “jury duty” seriously. Most of us have convicted the defendant before hearing the defence’s argument, but we must reconsider now that we know that the prosecution presented hearsay and fiction instead of real evidence.
We have been manipulated and exploited into making choices scientifically certain to increase harm to the environment. Do you enjoy being tricked? I do not. As a scientist, I prefer that we make sound choices based on solid evidence. As a parent, I prefer that my children are taught facts, not lies, at school.
Remember, science tells us – you can be for the environment, or against plastics, but not both.
The scientific evidence to support every statement can be found in The Great Plastics Distraction video and The Plastics Paradox where The Plastics Paradox books can be downloaded for free in several languages. Also see Plastics and Carbon Dioxide; Prime Suspect or Falsely Accused, Plastics & the Environment; Do Plastics Degrade?, Plastics & the Environment; More Plastic than Fish by 2050?