Are Single Use Plastics Getting a Bad Rap?

Ideas and Issues

New York City      Once the breeze picks up between the canyons formed by New York City skyscrapers, the most common local bird that seems to be floating in the sky when you see something flutter by is most often a plastic bag.  Every delicatessen seems to use a ton of them daily with impunity.  Straws are passed out like party favors everywhere.  We think of New York City as one of the most progressive in the world, so what’s up?

According to a piece I read recently in Scientific America, maybe they know something that I didn’t understand as clearly as I should have about plastic.  According to a science writer named Wade Roush,

“Biodegradable” plastic doesn’t do what you think it does.  Your paper or metal straw takes only a tiny sip at the problem of plastic pollution.  And your supposedly eco-conscious cloth grocery bag is more damaging to the environment than conventional plastic bags – unless you reuse it literally thousands of times.”

What?!?  We thought we were ahead of the curve at Fair Grinds Coffeehouses when we banned all straws except on personal and desperate request.  We’re a social enterprise.  We compost and give our coffee grounds to local farmer cooperatives.  How could we not be on the cutting edge?

Scientific American says that the technical standards “for biodegradability are mostly about industrial composting” meaning it requires high heat and microorganisms and in six months later 90% is released as carbon dioxide, then it’s OK to call something “biodegradable” or “compostable.”  You hear that?  “Released as carbon dioxide!”  Worse, if the whole supposedly environmentally friendly stuff ends up in a regular landfill, and the odds are great on that score, then it creates methane.  More carbon dioxide and methane, hey, why not, kill the climate even faster while deluding yourself, eh?

Mostly this is due to the fact that a lot of this supposedly climate friendly stuff is made of “polyester derived from starchy plants, including corn and sugarcane” when, according to these scientists, plastics need to be “bio-based.”  Of all people, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have said they are moving to 100% plant-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but they aren’t ready for primetime yet.

Here’s the clincher:

“The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C over preindustrial levels, we may need to remove tens to hundreds of gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, ideally by 2050.  If the world fully converted to bioplastic starting in 2020, the carbon sequestered over the next 30 years could amount to more than 10 gigatons – which would be a good start.  When it comes to plastic, it’s time to think more flexibly.”

All of which says that the New York delis are not ahead of the curve, but that we’re all behind where we need to be.  It’s not simply switching one for the other, but getting it right with a tech that does no harm, rather than something that just makes us feel better about the morality of doing something rather than nothing.