The plastic challenge


Rather like the natural world that they seek to protect, environmentalists also move in cycles. They have concerned themselves with global warming, wind and solar power generation, the protection of rainforests and the potential dangers of genetically-modified crops. Now they have moved to plastic and more specifically the impact of discarded plastic on the world’s oceans.

The trigger for the latest concern was a BBC program made by the doyen of nature broadcasters, Sir David Attenborough, in which dramatic footage was shown of moving islands of plastic waste and their appalling effect on marine life. Suddenly, discarded plastic has become the new target in the environmentalists’ sights. Researchers say that so far around the world, 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been made, 6.3 billion of which has been discarded. Plastic, the wonder material first made synthetically in the middle of the nineteenth century, has become an important component of virtually every manufactured item. However, until now, the majority of plastic does not break down when thrown into landfill sites or indeed the sea. In as much as it does disintegrate, it merely turns into micro-particles, which in the oceans enter the food chain. This, say the environmentalists, threatens catastrophic consequences for all marine animals.

Each and every new environmental issue in this cycle of alarm has thrown up its growing lobbies of advocates. These spokesmen draw on scientific researchers who tap suddenly available grants to fund their work and publish the papers which are all-important to career advancement and further tranches of cash for new studies. This process is not of itself in any way wrong. But where this can become iniquitous is when research results are talked up to the extent that anyone who disagrees with the current wisdom is attacked. The “crime” of climate change deniers, who argue that global warming is not all man-made but part of a natural cycle, is the most obvious case. The vitriolic personal assaults on those who question the existing orthodoxy are a disgrace. Science relies on constant challenge to improve and hone its findings. No scientific finding is so absolute that it cannot be contested. Those who deny this are not good scientists and if their rebuttals involve personal attacks, they are more often than not rogues.

Nevertheless, there is clearly an issue with disposable plastic, largely in packaging and as we see here in the Kingdom with the ubiquitous water bottles. Liquids once came in glass bottles that were collected, cleaned and reused. The logistics involved in that process were largely abandoned half a century ago. It is being said that recycling glass into new glass comes with a high economic and energy cost.

It is good that the problem of these billions of tons of discarded plastic is now being addressed. Manufacturers are looking at how they can reduce plastic packaging, not least with the use of treated paper. But even if drinks manufacturers return to reusable glass bottles, they will face bigger bills to shift significantly heavier loads - a bottle can weigh more than its contents.

The key concern is that change will be backed by sound science and common sense. For sure plastics are killing marine life, but the emotive images of dead whales and dolphins are not the best way to inform the genuine solutions that are needed.