Plastic isn’t black or white
CalendarMarch 18, 2019
Plastic isn’t black or white
By Roger Whitten, Managing Director

I’m not here to criticise Sir David Attenborough. For one, I’m not mad and for two, his extraordinary exposé of the plastic pollution in our oceans during Blue Planet II helped inspire SoTerra and our quest for a more sustainable supply chain.

But what I would say is this: the huge waves caused by Sir David’s honourable stance do tend to wash over the subtleties of the debate. People see the hideous images: seal pups strangled by plastic netting; the carcass of an albatross splitting to reveal a gutful of plastic jetsam; shoals of fish swimming in plastic bags. Quite rightly they are appalled – and I am too. Our planet doesn’t deserve us.

Seal tangled in netting

It’s certainly not Sir David’s fault, but the righteous outrage rippling around the country obscures the full picture, and potentially harms the prospect of a meaningful, practical response. Now is not the time not for hysteria, but for action based on sound reason and understanding. And for me it starts with one fundamental fact: plastic isn’t black or white. Not all plastic is bad.

At SoTerra, we distribute materials for packaging and print, including plastic products. A salient point is that all of them are recyclable and primarily used across the 75% of the market in which plastics are used many times, for a long time, and then recycled. The true problem sits with the 25% of the market made up of single-use plastics.

Anthony Ryan, Professor of Physical Chemistry and Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield, is vitriolic in his assessment. Plastic isn’t the problem. What is morally wrong is what humans do with it.

He says: “The reason we have plastic leaking out of landfill and into the sea is because there’s a collusion between packaging manufacturers and consumers to use single use plastics because it makes the bottom line better for producers and makes products cheaper for consumers.”

And there’s the rub. We need to learn to stop using bad plastics and start using good plastics instead. A large proportion of the 25% is food packaging – delivering the shelf life that we demand. There’s no simple panacea for solving this either. Switching the emphasis from plastic packaging to additional refrigerated lorries, for example, would simply create more damaging greenhouse gases.

We at SoTerra are in it for the long haul. Our strategy is to inform and stimulate the supply chain and do our bit to get behind the momentum of alternative choices. They included the growing availability of greener ‘bioplastic’ products. More environmentally-friendly and most commonly formed from corn starch, they are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the takeaway food sector.

Such innovation simply scratches the surface of innovation. I’m currently reviewing a range of exciting seaweed-based packaging options for dry seasoning, burgers, coffee, energy bars, ice cream and much more. Ultimately, the solution to the global plastic crisis will be led by consumer demand. Let’s get on with the job of influencing it positively – for all our sakes.

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