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Plastic ban may be a positive for the planet

The upcoming extension of the ban on ‘single-use’ plastics, which kicks in on July 1, is likely to be welcomed by the vast majority of New Zealanders.

Among the plastic products to be outlawed are plastic plates, bowls, and cutlery, those ‘single-use’ unsealed plastic produce bags found in supermarkets’ fruit and veg sections, and ‘single-use’ plastic drinking straws.

Rather than prompting an outbreak of widespread whining, one imagines the country’s population will greet their phase-out with a collective cry of “good riddance to bad rubbish” [well, perhaps with the exception of plastic drinking straws, because have you ever tried to draw liquid through one of the pathetic paper substitutes?].

After all, the planet’s actually awash with plastics – recent estimates reckon there are more than 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of plastic in the oceans, which equates to about 23,000 pieces per square kilometre. And an estimated eight million new pieces of plastic are dumped into aquatic environments every 24 hours – a rate that some calculations conclude will result in all the fish in the sea being outweighed by the plastic in their habitat by 2050.

Then there’s the fact plastics are now so pervasive that relatively large traces of microplastics are now being found in people’s blood, lungs, and breast milk. Even enthusiastic adherents of elective plastic surgery probably aren’t particularly pleased about that.

The banning of ‘single-use’ plastic shopping bags – which came into effect a little less than four years ago – suggests that while consumers will take a wee while to adjust to the new regime, these new plastic prohibitions will be far from the metaphorical end of the world. And we can only hope they help forestall the literal finale.

However, it seems timely to recall that it was for exactly this purpose that plastic shopping bags were invented in the first place.

Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin developed them in 1959 as an alternative to paper bags, which were regarded as bad for the environment because their production resulted in vast tracts of forests being razed.

Because they were significantly stronger than paper bags, they could in theory be used over and over again – which Thulin personally did in practice.

Unfortunately, he didn’t account for the ethos of our consumer society, which American punk rock band Dead Kennedys pretty accurately summed up as “Give me convenience or give me death”.

Within three decades, what was intended as a repeatedly used receptacle became something that was typically deployed only once and then discarded. It’s only taken another three decades for us to find ourselves in our present parlous plastic predicament – one of the solutions to which is to replace plastic produce bags with, you guessed it, paper bags.

It bears thinking about how some of our current attempts to mitigate our adverse impact on the environment and climate will be viewed in coming decades – or even just a few years.

One hopes the principle of ‘first do no harm’ is always at the forefront of environmentally focused innovations, although accumulating evidence suggests it often comes a poor second to profiting from merely appearing to help save the planet.

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