Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Simply switching from plastics to other materials could actually increase carbon emissions. (Mar20)

This is the conclusion of a new report from the Green Alliance: Fixing the System – Why the circular economy for all materials is the only way to solve the plastic problem. 

Ivory Billiard balls

One of the rather intriguing insights in this report is that plastics were invented to prevent the extinction of elephants!  How so? At the end of the 19th century the world demand for ivory, in particular to make billiard balls, led to a call for more sustainable alternative materials.  

This led to the invention of celluloid, which turned out to be versatile, durable and low cost – and was used to replace other materials plundered from the natural world such as tortoiseshell in combs or coral in jewellery. 

And, that’s not all.  The report also points out that plastic bags were originally invented to replace paper bags, to save the destruction of forests.

Today, it is widely thought that the exponential rise in plastics goes hand in hand with our throwaway, disposable society.  And, this has led to a to a public backlash against the material – and a desire to replace it with almost anything else.  

Making aluminium cans

Paper, glass, aluminium are now commonly touted as more eco-friendly than plastic, even when they are used for single use purposes.  The report points out that this is not the case. Simply replacing one material for another is not the answer.

It’s clear that this anti-plastic stance is a public opinion ’sacred cow’.  At the launch of the report one questioner challenged the panel about why it’s not understood that plastic is made from oil and therefore fossil fuels.  Her conclusion, it seemed, was to ban plastics. What she hadn’t understood was that there’s far more fossil fuels used to produce, transport and recycle  other materials such as glass, paper and aluminium, than plastics.  Oh dear.

She’s not alone. The man from Waitrose said that he’s inundated with people returning plastic packaging to the store.  One of their responses has been to launch an ‘Unpacked’ initiative, so people can fill up their own containers with Waitrose produce.  I like the idea in principles but I’m not convinced that they’ve fully thought it through…  How much of the packaging is simply removed behind the scenes? And, how much extra food waste is produced in people’s homes as a result?  He didn’t know.  Nor do I.  

What I do know is that I agree with the key recommendations in this report – that we need to consider the whole life cycle impact of products, from cradle to grave.  And, most importantly, that the solution will be to design systems for a circular economy, where materials are continually recycled – and very little is thrown away.  

This is not simply about what materials we should be using but what systems we should be creating – and how we can abandon our throwaway culture, and become truly sustainable. 

Click here on Report for link to report page

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