The War on Plastics is Back

Commentary, COVID-19, Environment, Kenneth P. Green

By now, everyone has seen the memes of Dr. Evil ordering up a change of focus in his campaign to maintain global fear: “Fear of [last crisis] is no longer working; Release the murder hornets!” Well, to judge from recent news articles, the meme should read: “Fear of COVID-19 is no longer working; Restart the war on plastics!”

After a year of people living in morbid fear of touching something that has not been repeatedly sterilized with alcohol (generally transported in plastic bottles), handled by people wearing plastic gloves and looking at people through layers of plastic shields, Christine Sismondo, writing in the Toronto Star, asks: “What can we do about increased plastic use during the pandemic?” That’s before, of course, the pandemic has actually run its course.

Marc Fawcett-Anderson, writing in Canada’s National Observer, tells us: “Canada is drowning in plastic waste—and recycling won’t save us.” Canadians, we’re told, simply have to use less plastic. It’s okay in medical devices, apparently, but not much else. Still, the war against plastics is so desperate, “cutting back production is only half the solution, they say,” Fawcett-Anderson writes, adding: “Canadian policy-makers need to take a holistic look at how Canadians eat, move and otherwise inhabit the world—then develop locally tailored systems that make it possible to live well without disposable plastic.” After all, Fawcett-Anderson writes, quoting plastics opponents: “‘There are people alive (who) have memories of before there was disposable packaging,’ they note. ‘They ate things. They were OK.’” Right, there are people alive like that, at least partially, because plastics saved them from COVID-19. And I’m sure they would tell you that safety, health and the environment were so much better than they are now, if you just don’t talk about polio. Or thalidomide. Or rubella. Or ptomaine. Or tetanus. Or the Great Depression.

Surprisingly, the sudden recollection of the horror of plastics comes just in time to build support for the ban on single-use plastics that the prime minister has cued up for 2021. One assumes the plastic-haters are worried that people won’t want to put down their plastic bottles of hand sanitizer, their plastic-coated face masks or their gloriously pure and sterile first-use plastic grocery bags quite so soon after COVID-19 consigned their cloth bags to a year of rotting and growing germs locked in the boots of their unused automobiles.

It is utterly insane that in 2021, one needs to once again point out that plastics have allowed a revolution in material science that has vastly improved the quality of life for literally billions of people. From medical devices to consumer products, plastics have given people the abilities to package, transport, store and preserve foods, medicines and an uncountable number of consumer products that improve people’s quality of life. From artificial limbs, to carbon fibre car bodies, to the Plexiglas, polyurethane and polyvinyl chloride that literally, just last year, saved the lives of untold millions of people. That phone you used to call an ambulance for your parent? Made of plastics, undoubtedly by machines made of and with plastics, sent to you wrapped in more plastics and transported to you by the same hydrocarbons that make up the actual plastics of the phone. Oh, and those hygienic wipes? The ones that you literally would have mortgaged the house to buy last March, but were already out of stock? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, those sanitary wipes are made of “materials such as polyester, polypropylene, cotton, wood pulp, or rayon fibers formed into sheets.” The polyester and polypropylene are plastics. And would you really want more trees harvested for sanitary wipes? No? How did “go without” feel in March of 2020? Do we want that joyous feeling back?

Yes, we can do better about disposing of plastics safely to protect the environment and the same is true of everything else we use, from wood, to metal, to stone and glass. But banning things that people have concluded are vital goods or trying to unreasonably reduce the use of such materials out of an abject fear of “drowning in it” is not only irrational, it is a waste of taxpayer time and money to even discuss. Plastics are ubiquitous because people find them valuable and that should be reason enough for the nannies of the world to leave them alone.

So no, prime minister, it’s not time to release the murder hornets. If there’s a problem with plastics disposal, then reform waste disposal regulations and see to the enforcement of safe disposal laws. It’s reasonable for the government to stop people from littering the world with plastics, but it’s not reasonable for them to tell people not to use the materials that vastly improve their lives.

 

Kenneth Green is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.