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Idealists are often accused of proposing simple solutions to very complex problems. It comes with the territory. Having ironclad ideals is good. Ideals give people something to work toward. But very little in the real world is black-and-white. More often, life is gray. As such, simple black-and-white solutions generally don’t solve gray problems.
A good example is a push to ban plastics. It is easy to see the problem of plastics winding up in landfills and waterways as a black-and-white problem. After all, we don’t need plastic straws and foam cups. But are we all prepared to carry around stainless steel cups all day? Are we prepared for the amount of energy we will consume just to manufacture all that stainless steel?
Human beings generate waste. In fact, every living creature generates waste to some degree. Every living creature also consumes energy. So no matter what we do, we will be taking resources from the Earth, using them to our benefit, and generating waste in return. There is no way to stop it save our own extinction.
1. More to Plastics Than Straws and Cups
People with a penchant for demanding that plastics be eliminated do not understand the complexity of the problem. They can see plastic cups and straws very clearly. What they cannot see is just how many things are made from plastic. Just look in your own kitchen. In that room alone, there are more plastics than you can realistically count without some sort of external tool.
Now, multiply that by every room in your house. The fact is that plastics are everywhere. Plastic parts are used in nearly every consumer product on the market. Eliminate plastics and you either eliminate products or force manufacturers to find substitute materials.
2. Substitute Materials Have Problems
Substitute materials have their own problems. Do you want to replace foam cups with paper? Fine. Paper comes from trees. Not only that, but it also cannot hold the liquid on its own. You still have to create a plastic liner inside your paper cup. So perhaps the solution is to make cups from metal or glass. Fine. Manufacturing both materials consumes energy, generates pollution, and creates waste streams – all in big ways.
Take away plastic and you have to make large portions of your electric vehicle from another material. Metal, you say? You will need bigger and more powerful lithium-ion batteries to run the car. Making those batteries requires taking tons of material out of the Earth. Did you know that lithium mining is terribly damaging to the environment?
3. Plastic in Waterways
The most recent push for banning plastics is the result of straws, food packages, and even face masks winding up in waterways. But step back and think about this logically: the problem is not the plastic. It is the fact that people are too lazy to deal with their trash responsibly. They just throw it on the ground. They will do the same thing with metal, paper, wood, etc.
Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company whose successful business proves that plastic can be dealt with responsibly. They recycle tons of industrial scrap plastic every year. It is plastic that doesn’t end up in landfills or waterways. Why? Because Seraphim and its customers have made the choice to not throw scrap plastic away.
Banning plastic is a simple solution to a complex problem. It is also a solution that will not really solve anything. The real problem with plastic is individual carelessness. That is what we ought to be addressing. Until people stop carelessly discarding things, no material will truly be safe for the environment.