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We’ve managed to demonise plastic so hard core recently that most of us are stumbling home from the supermarket arms laden with loose produce because we forgot our reusable tote bag again.

Whilst we’ve become lazy with our use of plastic, using it for pretty much everything when we could so easily do without (plastic applicator tampons hello), let’s not forget the huge advances in healthcare, both from a nutrition point of view and a medical one, industry, technology and agriculture, that we’ve been able to achieve alongside the invention of plastic.

Whilst we’ve become lazy with our use of plastic, using it for pretty much everything when we could so easily do without (plastic applicator tampons hello), let’s not forget the huge advances in healthcare, both from a nutrition point of view and a medical one, industry, technology and agriculture, that we’ve been able to achieve alongside the invention of plastic.

And if you’re reading this thinking “old news, I’m already using a shampoo soap bar, carrying my keep cup and water bottle and death staring the barman if he forgets my instructions and puts a plastic straw in my drink, then unfortunately you’re in the minority, and, whilst it’s incredible that some of us  are (organic) cottoning on to the single use problem, as a nation and as a planet, we have a long way to go. We need to start valuing longevity over convenience. 

However, it’s our attitude to plastic that is so cripplingly wrong, rather than the material itself. Yes, you’re right to stumble home from the shops with potatoes flying everywhere because a single use plastic bag is totally unnecessary when we’ve all got a reusable one somewhere that we could dig out and take. It’s irresponsible to assume that something that’s taken hours to make and precious resources to build, like a plastic bag or a coffee cup, is fine to use for just 5 minutes and then discard. Whatever happened to cherishing our belongings? Our attitude to single use has gotten out of hand and we need reigning in.

Let’s take a look back at the historical journey of plastic and at some of the crucial benefits that we’ve gained from inventing this multi-purpose polymer...as it might just make us respect its usage a bit more. 

It's our attitude to plastic that is so cripplingly wrong

Plastic is a polymer, a long chain of molecules which, if it’s a synthetic polymer like plastic, is typically made up of carbon atoms from petroleum from the  oil industry. 

Plastic is also made from shale gas, a natural gas which is fracked to produce small plastic pellets which can then be moulded into hundreds of different types of plastic. As a slight side note, cheap American shale gas is now flowing freely to the UK and it’s supercharging polymer production. In a recent BBC documentary they uncovered that from the beginning of this century plastic production has doubled from 200 million tonnes per year to 400 million tonnes and is still accelerating and due to double again to 800 million tonnes by 2040. Fracking for shale gas has made natural gas really cheap, and as a result it’s made plastic feedstock really cheap too and this is driving a huge expansion in the plastic industry.

At Ineos, one of the world’s leading plastic manufacturers, they’ve recently reopened their second fracking plant which until recently was closed down due to insufficient shale gas from the North Sea. With the additional gas from the USA, at a low cost, production has now been ramped up. Exactly what you don’t want to hear if you’re fighting a war on plastics.

It's hard to imagine that producing plastic could ever be beneficial.

Confronted with images of ‘Trash Island’ and marine wildlife suffocating in ocean plastic waste it’s hard to imagine that producing plastic could ever be beneficial. Interestingly, one of the main sources of demonetisation from the often educated middle-classes who are shopping at zero waste bulk stores and at their local Farmers’ Market, is the cucumber condom. In other words, the shrink wrap made from polymer plastic film that protects the cucumber’s skin from shelf to table. 

The first thing to note here is that English cucumbers have a very thin skin in comparison to other varieties (American and Australian cucumbers all have a very tough and think outer skin, for example, which doesn’t need protecting in the same way), and unfortunately as consumers are you going to choose the cucumber with a damaged skin, potentially contaminated and dirty or the one wrapped in plastic that’s pristine and fresh? Exactly. 

The issue isn’t only about our warped view of what we recognise as food these days and it needing to be perfect, shiny and glowing for us to deem it edible; it’s also an issue of global food production.

With something like 17.4 billion people to feed we need our food to stay fresher for longer in order to decrease the actual amount that our planet has to produce. The plastic wrap on a cucumber can extend its shelf life by 14 days. Every year about 600,000 pacemakers are fitted which are insulated by a plastic polymer, plastic seat belts reduce the risk of injury to car drivers by 45% and truck drivers by 60%, and cars are now being made with more plastic parts, making them lighter and therefore more efficient on fuel thereby helping to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s clear that the plastic issue is not black and white, and that actually what we need is a perspective shift to really value and appreciate the vital use of plastic in our modern day lives (personally we feel the jury is still out on the cucumber condom), so that we can begin to change our mentality towards this clever polymer.

The most vital uses of plastic are not the single use ones - the pacemakers, hearing aids, syringes, car parts and water pipes of the world are not what we’re demonising here. Cherish those and be grateful for modern ingenuity and the science that’s produced them, but shun the sanitary pads that contain the equivalent amount of plastic as 4 plastic bags, the tampons with their shiny plastic applicators, the water bottles and hundreds of different bathroom products all dressed up in shiny plastic casing.

For those of us lucky enough to have clean drinking water we can so easily carry a reusable bottle, and, if you’re already doing this but not doing anything else then we think it’s only a matter of time before that initial effort on your part to carry around your bottle and find somewhere to fill it up turns into a more inquisitive attitude to the single use plastic littering the rest of your life. If you can make the effort to carry a reusable bottle, then you can certainly get on board with a coffee cup, plastic free period product, shopping for loose vegetables, grabbing yourself a nifty cutlery set to pop in your tote bag and so on… 

Value the necessary uses of plastic, change your attitude to single use, recognise that plastic isn’t the problem and that it’s our fundamental throw away attitude that really is.