A global anti-plastics treaty is on the cards. It takes an ideological hammer to what isn’t a nail.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is spearheading a drive towards a global treaty on plastics. This treaty would herald a ‘systems change’, as red-green socio-economic planners coyly describe their top-down redesign and micro-management of a vast global industry and a large part of the modern economy.

They write as if a motley crew of diplomats, socialists, bureaucrats and environmental activists would have the foggiest idea how a large global industry might work, or might be restructured from the ground up and changed for the better without dramatically decreasing efficiency and increasing costs.

Their key aim is to address ‘the causes of plastic pollution’, which they promptly misidentify as being the ubiquity of plastic goods and the non-reusability of some of them.

In fact, the only problem is how to properly dispose of plastic.

Pollution

Addressing plastic pollution is, of course, a sterling idea. Nobody likes to see shopping bags tangled in pristine barbed-wire fences, Garfield telephones washing up on beaches, or turtles posed for the camera with straws up their noses.

(The physics of how a turtle might inhale the entirety of a 10cm straw escapes me, and it is a remarkable coincidence that this one-in-a-million turtle was discovered by someone described as ‘[having campaigned] against plastic straws for years’, but I’ll restrain my cynicism. I can’t prove that this was a publicity stunt by eco-mentalists, and I’m not trying to say that plastic pollution isn’t a problem. But it was exceedingly effective propaganda that precipitated plastic straw bans in many countries around the world.)

The UNEP proposes to achieve a reduction in plastic pollution by reducing the use of plastic, by replacing it with ‘sustainable’ alternatives, by reusing plastic products, and by recycling plastics. It claims, a little ludicrously, that global plastic pollution could be slashed by 80% by 2040.

A news report on the initiative in The Guardian highlights ‘the damage caused by plastics to health, the climate and the environment’. It does not specify this damage in any detail.

An opinion column in the same newspaper says such a treaty ‘cannot come soon enough’, as if everyone must surely agree.

‘Whisper it,’ The Guardian’s specialist environment correspondent wrote, ‘but – with hard work, determination and a lot of good luck – the plastics treaty might join the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer as a landmark success in environmental diplomacy.’

The problem is that all of this activism is based on hardly any scientific fact. Instead, it is based on a deep-seated hostility to plastic and consumerism, and an unsubstantiated belief that the less plastic we produce and use, the better.

The reality is that plastic isn’t in itself a problem. The complication lies with its disposal.

Angelic voices

Plastic, as a material, is magnificent. It is extraordinary. It deserves to be praised by choirs of angelic voices.

It is extremely inexpensive and easy to manufacture.

It can be formed or moulded to any shape or size, with an almost inexhaustible range of different properties.

It can be light or heavy, fragile or strong, flexible or stiff, elastic or rigid, opaque or transparent, resistant to heat or cold.

It is durable and resistant to corrosion and decay, even in relatively hostile environments like direct sunlight, the ocean or space.

It can be made clean and hygienic, food-safe, safe for children, or usable in medical or laboratory settings.

It has brought about previously unimaginable improvements in quality of life, for rich and poor. It makes possible labour-saving, life-enhancing products of an extraordinary variety.

From disposable syringes and implantable pace-makers, to plastic buckets that replace heavy clay jars for carrying water in rural communities, to hygienic packaging for food and medical products, to hypoallergenic pillow fillings, to milk cartons, to bottles for the safe storage of cleaning products and chemicals, to hermetic seals for jars and bottles, to shopping trolleys, to tyres, to winter jackets and other clothing items, to garden furniture, to computers, to spectacle frames and lenses, to solar panels, to motor vehicles, plastic is everywhere.

Snobs might sneer at plastic, but it really is a stunningly beneficial material.

Sacrificing advantages

More than that, it cannot easily be replaced by anything without sacrificing important advantages.

Plastic replaced a great deal of metal, ceramic, glass and wood in manufacturing, reducing very substantially the amount of forestry and mining that would be needed to satisfy the needs of the growing world population.

In food packaging, non-plastic wrappers are more likely to leak and spread food-borne illnesses.

A lot of other packaging would have to be replaced by wood, paper, glass or metal, which would reduce practicality and dramatically increase shipping weight and volume, which would in turn increase energy consumption along the supply chain.

Cars would be twice as heavy and half as safe if all the strong but light-weight plastic they contained had to be replaced by some other material.

Most modern electronic goods could simply not exist without plastic.

Replacing plastic materials with alternatives, whether they are ‘eco-friendly’ or not, is a great deal harder than environmentalists might imagine.

Environmental footprint

Alternatives are almost always more expensive and less practical than plastic, which is why manufacturers use plastic in the first place.

Imposing such unnecessary costs upon poor people who are already struggling with inflation (or upon taxpayers, as the UNEP programme envisions) would be bad policy.

Not only that, but alternatives to plastic are not even convincingly better from an environmental point of view, either.

For example, the switch by some annoying retailers (Woolworths, I’m looking at you) to canvas bags creates an environmental footprint hundreds or even thousands of times larger than that of properly disposed-of plastic bags. Paper bags are better, but still far worse than plastic bags, in terms of resource us from cradle to grave. Either way, they’re inconvenient and unhygienic, compared with plastic.

I’ve made a similar argument about plastic straws, pointing out that alternatives were either poor substitutes (like soggy cardboard) or unhygienic. Banning them does not solve a significant problem, since they account for hardly any actual plastic pollution. Opposing plastic straws is performative virtue-signalling, nothing more.

On another occasion I pointed out that only two to three percent of the world’s plastic waste ends up in the oceans, and that recycling neither works, nor is necessary.

Those articles point out that we’re not in principle running out of space for landfills: ‘A calculation by Bjorn Lomborg, in his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, found that all the refuse the US will produce in the 21st century could be dumped in a single landfill 30m high, and 26km to a side. That represents 0.0009% of that country’s land area. Even if South Africans were to start producing as much waste as Americans do (and thanks to our lower prosperity we’re far from that lofty goal), we would not run out of space to put it.’

I provided several more arguments as well as good sources in all those articles, and they’re worth reviewing. If you don’t believe me, though, here are eight other articles from various sources declaring that recycling doesn’t work and probably never will. There are more.

Microplastics

There’s a lot of media propaganda about so-called ‘microplastics’. The UNEP itself is a leading source of it. Ominously, it says, ‘Microplastics have been found in various human organs, and even in the placenta of newborn babies’.

Oh, the horror!

Here’s another recent example: Lake Tahoe has higher concentration of microplastics than ocean trash heap.

What are we to do?

First, let’s get a grip. The real question is whether the ubiquity of microplastics is actually a problem; whether it causes any substantial harm.

Yes, microplastics are everywhere. But so are cellulose fibres, mineral particles, and any number of other sources of small particles.

Most reports merely claim that microplastics ‘were found’, as if that is by itself a terrible thing.

Yet a study conducted in the English Channel found microplastics in only just over a third of fish specimens, and of those, the average number of microplastic pieces found was less than two. The source of almost all (93.4%) of those were clothing fibres.

Even the ‘ocean trash heap’, which isn’t a heap at all, is vastly exaggerated. Allow me to quote a previous article of mine:

‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which National Geographic thinks is overly grandly named, contains 79,000 metric tons of plastic. This is a very tiny fraction of the more than 300 million tons of plastic produced each year. Contrary to popular images, the supposed garbage patch cannot readily be seen from the air or even from a boat deck. Most of the plastic particles are tiny and drift below the surface. Even then, they comprise only 0.0000008% of the water volume near the surface. Instead of a garbage patch, one might better visualise it as “flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup”.

‘It has long been thought that waste from land makes up the majority of ocean plastic, but recent work on cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Patch suggests this is not so. It is not made up of shopping bags, soft drink bottles and drinking straws. Instead, reports National Geographic, 20% of the patch is a result of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, 46% is made up of abandoned fishing nets, and “the majority of the rest is composed of other fishing industry gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates, and baskets.”’

Little evidence of risk

What is rarely mentioned is what risk these microplastics pose to us, or to the environment. After all, if they’re largely inert, why would they be more harmful than, say, sand, metallic or cellulose fibres?

There is some speculation, but little actual evidence, that microplastics might pose a risk to human or ecological health.

‘Microplastic pollution is currently perceived as an environmental hazard, and adverse effects have been reported at various levels of biological organization,’ reads one paper. ‘However, most experimental designs do not allow plastic-specific effects to be distinguished from those caused by other particles, such as clay and cellulose, which are naturally ubiquitous in the environment. We suggest that microplastic effects reported in recent ecotoxicological studies are similar to those induced by the natural particles. To provide a sound basis for risk assessment, experimental designs must not only be able to disentangle the effects of food limitation and particle toxicity but also demonstrate whether microplastics cause impacts that differ from those induced by natural particles.’

‘There is no risk assessment framework that takes into account the multidimensionality of microplastic particles against the background of numerous natural particles, which together encompass an infinite combination of sizes, shapes, densities and chemical signatures,’ reads another.

The solution

So it isn’t at all clear that a global treaty is required to reduce the production of plastic, or enforce reuse or recycling. In fact, all the evidence suggests that such a project would be extraordinarily expensive, would unnecessarily raise product prices, would have unintended consequences through the production of plastic replacement materials, and achieve very little because it isn’t targeted at the real problem: waste.

We know, for example, which river systems dump the most plastic waste in the ocean. By the way, they’re not the rivers that run through the wealthy, capitalist, consumerist countries of the West.

Targeting the top 20 polluting rivers, which are mostly in Asia, would cut the amount of plastic waste that enters the oceans from rivers by two thirds.

This is a fraction of the real problem, however.

Tackling abandoned fishing nets and other fishing industry gear, such as ropes, spacers, traps, buoys, floats, crates, and baskets, could reduce the amount of total plastic waste in the ocean by over half.

On land, the only real problem with plastic waste is appropriate disposal. Once plastic is safely in a properly constructed landfill, it poses no risk to anyone.

Tackle waste, not plastic

Since correct disposal would still be required under a regime that minimises plastic production, and is required for non-plastic waste, too, it would not cost much more to simply start with a global campaign on appropriate plastic disposal.

Of course, that wouldn’t enable them to target guilt-ridden elites in wealthy countries, since they largely have the problem licked already. The majority of the plastic waste problem occurs in poor countries.

However, it would enable them to tackle the real problem, instead of their subjective prejudice against plastic, modernity and consumer capitalism.

Litter awareness and clean-up campaigns, anti-littering and anti-dumping laws with substantial penalties, incentive schemes aimed at waste reduction and redirection, as well as infrastructure programmes to improve the siting and design of landfill sites, would all be beneficial. They would significantly reduce the environmental risks posed by plastic litter.

These are targeted interventions that could each make a tremendous difference. They would not require an unfocused, root-and-branch ‘systems change’ at the direction of socialists and greens, which will likely only have terrible unintended consequences for the environment, for our health, and for consumer prices.

If plastic waste is a problem, tackle the waste, not the plastic.

[Image: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/667619]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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contributor

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. .