Banning Plastics Will Make The Planet Worse Off. Here’s Why
WRITTEN BY PIERRE DESROCHERS AND JOANNA SZURMAK
According to many environmentalists, coal, petroleum, and natural gas, together with the fuels, lubricants, and myriad other products these fossil fuels make possible, help drive widespread environmental problems.
As the journalist and activist Murray Dobbin put it a few years ago, the “ever-increasing production and use of fossil fuels will, over time, kill billions of us and irreversibly change all life on the planet.”
Taking its cue from the likes of Dobbin, the Trudeau government wants to designate all plastic manufactured items — not just straws! — as “toxic.” Surely such a bold move is justified in light of how terrible things have become for humans and their planet.
Yet, one has to wonder.
As many people have pointed out, plastic materials have many benefits. They’re versatile, cheap, lightweight, and resistant. They protect our food, reduce food waste and help produce a lot more food a lot more efficiently — and therefore more cheaply — than was possible a few decades ago.
And, crucially, plastic pollution is not a problem in advanced economies like ours as we’re pretty good at burning and recycling plastics, transforming them either into energy or other products.
Indeed, plastics and fossil fuels benefit both humanity and our environment. We are born and live surrounded by plastics and countless machines created with and powered by fossil fuels.
There are now nearly eight billion of us, with the vast majority of people living much longer and more prosperous lives than the one billion people who were around when coal use took off two centuries ago. Moreover, the richer we are, the greener most parts of the planet become.
More people, more industry, more food, more consumption, and a greener planet? How can this be? Easy. We’ve gotten better and better at substituting resources produced on the surface of the planet with resources dug or pumped from underground.
Before 1850, approximately three-quarters of all products used by human beings came from living plants or animals competing for resources on the Earth’s surface.
As Harvard geologist Kirtley Fletcher Mather observed in 1944: “Today only about 30 percent of the things used in industrialized countries come from things that grow; about 70 percent have their sources in mines and quarries.”
Indeed, refined petroleum products (fuels, lubricants), synthetic products (plastic, fiber, cloth, rubber, sweeteners, vitamins, medicines), metals, sand, clay, silicon, potash, and phosphate have gradually reduced the demand for: wild fauna such as whales (for whale oil, baleen, perfume base), birds (for feathers), elephants, polar bears, alligators, and other wild animals (for ivory, fur, and skin), trees and other plants (for lumber, firewood, charcoal, rubber, pulp, dyes, and green manure), agricultural products (for fats and fibers from livestock and crops, leather, dyes, and pesticides from plants), work animals such as horses, mules and oxen and the large quantities of food they consume and, finally, human labor in various forms (mainly agricultural work).
This large-scale substitution allowed our ancestors to, in the words of historical demographer E. A. Wrigley, “break free from photosynthesis” and become independent from the soil.
These advances, in turn, made marginal agricultural land, sometimes cultivated through environmentally damaging methods such as slash-and-burn, available for spontaneous reforestation, re-wilding, and tree plantations while sparing many non-cultivated marginal wetlands, grasslands, and forestlands from the plow.
In North America, Europe, and other parts of the world, there are more forested areas now than in the 1950s and even the 1850s.
Plastics are not perfect, but if handled properly they are better and greener than substitute products made of plants and animals. Turning our backs on plastic will make us and our planet worse off.