A ban on plastics may seem a step towards a cleaner, greener future but a group of academics from Heriot-Watt University say it could result in much greater environmental damage.
Some 40 academics covering multiple disciplines across the university including engineering, sciences, economics and social sciences, have formed a new network to take an impartial, expert look at the growing issues around plastic.
The debate has gained fresh impetus since the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 series, which thrust the issue back into the public conscience and led to many calls for an absolute ban.
In many cases there is no credible alternative to using a plastic, so we need to move towards a ‘circular economy’ for plastics, rather than the largely ‘make-use-dispose’ model we currently adopt.Professor David Bucknall
The academics want to capitalise on this momentum by contributing positively to these on-going discussions to help create a more sustainable model for plastic manufacturing and usage.
Although the academics are in support of the urgent need to prevent potentially harmful environmental effects of plastics, they say many of the current arguments surrounding a reduction or ban are often shortsighted and not based on facts.
Professor David Bucknall, Chair in Materials Chemistry from the University’s Institute of Chemical Sciences, is concerned about pressure from various quarters calling for outright ban as there are no clear alternatives. Estimates show that replacement of plastics with currently available materials would lead to a doubling of global energy consumption and a tripling of greenhouse gas emissions (1). Separate analysis found the environmental cost of replacing plastic would be nearly four times greater.
Professor Bucknall explains: “Almost everything we touch or interact with on a daily basis is made of or contains a plastic of some description. Banning or reducing their use would have a massive impact on the way we live. For instance, replacing plastics with alternative materials such as glass and metals would cost more to manufacture due to the energy consumed and resources – including water – required to process them.
“Furthermore, because plastics are lightweight, transportation of consumer goods in plastic packaging means fewer vehicles are required for transportation of those goods, therefore burning less fuel and greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“So whilst some people may wish for plastics to be reduced or banned altogether, we need to ensure we are replacing them with materials that are better for the planet. In many cases there is no credible alternative to using a plastic, so we need to move towards a ‘circular economy’ for plastics, rather than the largely ‘make-use-dispose’ model we currently adopt. This will require changes and improvements in not only the plastics we are making, but getting better at reusing and recycling them”
Read the full report at the University of Heriot Watt website. See News Page.