Banning plastics in an attempt to combat the amount of man-made rubbish piling up in the environment could cause the planet more harm than good, a leading group of Scottish academics have warned.
The declaration comes from a group of experts at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University who have set up a new network to examine the issues surrounding plastics.
They have hit out at calls to cut usage of plastic or those to ban it all together, claiming the arguments are short-sighted and not based on facts.
Though ending use of plastic may seem like a move towards a more earth-friendly future, they say the opposite may be true.
The group, from engineering, economics and science faculties, acknowledge the increasing amount of plastic litter accumulating in landscapes and seas must be addressed. However, they are warning against a knee-jerk reaction which could lead to a doubling of global energy consumption and a trebling of greenhouse gas emissions.
Professor David Bucknall, chair in materials chemistry at Heriot-Watt’s Institute of Chemical Sciences, insists that there are no obvious alternatives. “Almost everything we touch or interact with on a daily basis is made of or contains a plastic of some description,” he said.
“Banning or reducing their use would have a massive impact on the way we live. For instance, replacing plastics with alternative materials such as glass and metals would cost more to manufacture due to the energy consumed and resources, including water, required to process them.
“Furthermore, because plastics are lightweight, transportation of consumer goods in plastic packaging means fewer vehicles are required for transportation of those goods, therefore burning less fuel and greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“So whilst some people may wish for plastics to be reduced or banned altogether, we need to ensure we are replacing them with materials that are better for the planet.”
It is thought as much as 12 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in oceans around the world every year.
A UK government report has estimated this will increase threefold over the next decade. Plastic pollution harms wildlife and poses a significant threat to human health and the environment.
Estimates suggest plastic pollution kills around 100,000 marine creatures and a million seabirds each year through entanglement and ingestion. Fragments have been found in the stomachs of shellfish destined for dinner tables, as well as inside seabirds, dolphins and whales.
A raft of initiatives have been implemented in recent years in an effort to tackle the problem, including outlawing plastic-stemmed cotton buds and a 5p levy on carrier bags.
The EU has recently backed a ban on single-use plastics. The Scottish, UK and many local governments have pledged to phase out disposable items such as coffee cups and straws.
Professor Ted Henry, from the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences, insists that banning plastics is “not the answer”, but rather reusing and recycling must be improved.
“We need to look in the right places to find a long-term solution,” he said.
“Efforts should be directed towards creating a circular economy for plastics that integrates product design, use, recycling and reuse of plastics to reduce indiscriminate disposal. There are important gaps in our understanding, but we should not be rushing to conclusions in order to provide makeshift answers.”
Ocean campaigners have countered the claims.
“We can’t recycle our way out of this one,” Dr Sue Kinsey, waste specialist for the Marine Conservation Society, said.
“If plastic is properly used and disposed of, that’s all well and good. But when it falls out of the system, it becomes litter, goes into the sea.
“Plastic in the environment is much more harmful than glass or aluminium, especially to wildlife because they eat it, they get entangled in it and it has potential to attract toxins, which get absorbed into human and animal tissues.
“It’s true we do have to look very carefully at substitutions where substitutions are needed to make sure we don’t have a reverse effect. But we’re not actually talking about a one-on-one substitution.
“We’re talking about reducing use first, then substitution with more sustainable materials – for example, glass can be recycled many, many more times than plastic.
Also plastic itself comes from the oil industry, which is a finite resource.”