Thought Leadership

Plastics and unintended consequences

By Colin Walls

Some time ago, I wrote about why I thought that plastic bags are a good idea. I gave some rather tongue-in-cheek advice on how to be green. Although I was not being 100% serious, I was making the point that we should never accept advice from so-called experts without giving it some scrutiny. Since I wrote this previous piece, things have moved on. All over the world there are moves to reduce the use of plastic and I fear that we may fall victims to the Law of Unintended Consequences …

Until recently, the focus has been on reducing carbon emissions and there has been good progress on renewable energy sources, zero emissions vehicles, etc. Over the last couple of years, there has been a shift in concern towards the problems caused by plastic in our environment. I recognize that this is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed – the evidence is overwhelming. However, I am not sure that we are approaching it in the right way.

The banning of microscopic plastic beads in various products [cosmetics etc.] was clearly a good thing, but only a small step. We have two serious issues to address: many plastic things are made to be used precisely once; we have cultural and economic issues that mean that we do not dispose of plastic materials in a smart way.

So, what can we do about it? Well, the first thing we should not do is use biodegradable plastic. The reason is that these materials are harmful to the environment. They come in two varieties. The common one sounds good – it is compostable and breaks down quite readily. But the process results in carbon in the atmosphere. The other kind also disappear, but break into microscopic particles of plastic that can get everywhere, which is even worse.

The most popular mantra to save the planet is “use less plastic”. This sounds good, but has a fatal flaw, which is where the Law of Unintended Consequences comes in. There is a finite amount of oil on the planet. It will run out and, when it is gone, it is gone. I have always seen this as quite positive, as we will be forced to use a more sustainable power source and, hence, stop polluting the atmosphere. However, if we use less plastic, which is made from oil, there will be more left to use as fuel, so the pollution will persist for a little longer.

I have a proposed solution:

We should continue to use plastic, as it is a very versatile material, but we need to get smarter about how we use it. Plastic items should be made to last; single-use items should be made from a more suitable material, when possible. The plastics used should be fully recyclable. It is quite possible to make plastics that can be recycled over and over, but this should not detract from the reuse of items, which is far better. If we have legacy plastic items that are beyond use and cannot be recycled, they should be disposed of with care – I would say that they should be treated like nuclear waste and safely buried [thus locking up the carbon].

If this sounds impractical, I can give a couple of examples of how the approach can be applied:

I have been an enthusiastic re-user of shopping bags for many years. I keep some in the car and grab some as I go out of the door on foot. I found that the ones that were intended for single use could often be used several dozen times before falling to bits. Sadly, of late, the quality of such bags has gone down, so they would barely survive a single use! The tough “bags for life” can be much better. We have a couple of reinforced plastic bags that we bought in a French supermarket about 6 years ago for €1 each. They have been in frequent use ever since. They are now looking a little grubby and scruffy, but no sign of giving up the ghost.

We have a cardboard box of vegetables delivered each week. There is always a little excitement on a Friday to see what is in this week’s box. Early on that morning, I put last week’s box out so that the driver can take it back for reuse. We are not required to do that, but encouraged to do so and it only makes sense. I guess that most people who like veg supplied in this way would have such a “green” attitude. However, it seems that it is a little misplaced. The CEO of the largest veg box company in the UK explained that, although the cardboard boxes can be reused, they do not last through that many cycles before they weaken as a result of damp etc. Although cardboard can be recycled, this is not a very efficient process. He advocated using plastic boxes, as they would last for hundreds of cycles and could be made from readily recyclable plastic. Customer research indicated that most people still felt that plastic was less “green” than cardboard. It seems that old impressions are hard to change and more education is needed …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at