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Paper versus Plastic: 2.0

Revisiting this topic (previous article posted in January here). For a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it seems to be on a lot of people’s minds. Lots of social media activity. Facebook posts and LinkedIn sharing articles of companies and news, particularly for getting rid of plastics. Plastic use is attracting wide-spread attention, from our biggest oceans (story) all the way down to what is the best way to deal with dog poop (story)!

For another thing, use of resources on a finite planet is always going to be an important issue. Especially with a growing world population that, with economic growth in China, is bringing more activity and use of resources.

So, disavowing plastic is all the rage right now. What are all the motivations? For one thing, plastic is made from crude oil– ie. by ‘evil’ oil companies. Analysis of this perspective here. Connecting the crude oil industry as the reason for banning plastics is too simplistic, but a starting point for discourse to be sure.

However, another reason is that plastic doesn’t decompose as fast (like centuries) and thus is viewed as a forever form of litter– affecting our oceans and all kinds of wildlife habitats. We have plastic collecting in the ocean, ending up on beaches across the planet, choking animals, etc. Valid claim. Moreover, as it is so cheap to produce, plastic can be created for just about anything, and be used over and over and over again by so many people. Think bottled water. Think, of course, straws. Suddenly, infamous plastic straws. To this end, there are many good efforts undertaken to try and curb use of bottled water. And plastic straws.

Complications arise when you consider alternatives. Is the use of paper straws better? Because paper biodegrades and is easily recycled. And where do we ban water bottles? And have we adequately considered that water is a fundamental aspect of maintaining life itself. For example, is San Francisco airport really the best place to ban bottled water sales? Story.

Where do paper straws come from? Trees. Is it really better to start chopping down more trees so that we aren’t using as much plastic? This is the type of deeper policy issues that need to be considered. We are making wholescale decisions that might make sense for subsets of the problem without necessarily thinking that immediately phasing out plastic across the board might not make sense all over. Grocery stores wrapping bunches of bananas in banana leaves to save plastic? Wouldn’t the banana leaves be better off as fertilizer where the bananas are growing? And how many banana leaves have to be used to wrap a bunch of bananas. Picture. Not sure this particular solution makes any sense.

If the well-intentioned liberals and progressives that are often spearheading environmental initiatives thought longer about what the proposals are, and the real-world impacts are, maybe we could get real valuable solutions. Reality is there are a declining number of trees on this planet. Protecting trees and forests is probably the much bigger sustainability and environmental problem than short-term satisfaction in banning plastics (and there is a recent breakthrough novel connecting readers to the importance of our trees, The Overstory, buy here). The New York Times, in this piece here, just glosses over trees (as does this environmental organization’s analysis here of the big question ‘Paper or Plastic?’), though does at least hit on the best of all worlds– reusable bags, and the even bigger question of what are we filling these bags with.

Whatever the best path truly is, it would be best for all of us to start talking about these real-world policy issues. Levi Alvares is a European environmental advocate that understands digging a little deeper because a lot of what gets rammed through as legislation has a corporate/business agenda behind it (such as the paper industry saying get rid of plastic, etc). He said companies “are extremely powerful” and the people need “to have this conversation” or else we end up with “just another industry-led initiative” (Alvares quote from an article linked above, and here again). National legislation is quickly being drawn up (story). So the question is, are we really doing the right thing? Discuss further at Kialo, here or here.

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