Do we want to ban plastics?

(Part 1)

At the outset, allow me to state that I agree and support a “certain” kind of ban on “certain” kinds of plastic, as many sectors are advocating.  The question is, am I thinking about the same thing as the rest of the others, or are we in another “the blind men and the elephant” situation, where we may be saying the same words but thinking about entirely different concepts?  It’s just so easy to say, “ban plastics,” especially when connecting them to the drainage problem – another relationship which is likewise widely debated.

Actually, banning of “plastics,” specifically banning of plastic “bags,” or more specifically, the banning of plastics bags of a certain “thickness,” has been exhaustively debated worldwide for decades already.  But it seems there has been no general bandwagon to speak of among the earth’s countries and cities.  A few countries were quite aggressive early on, Germany and Japan notably, while others, developed and developing alike, had varying degrees of effort, and their cities differ from no intent at all, to establishing total bans.

Maybe, the difficulty was on pinning what we really mean, or intend to do.  This is a complicated issue which cannot be dissected in one column, so this writer would like to address this on a per issue basis, and the need for policy formulation for each.  It’s not just a matter of passing an ordinance – it requires that the policies be clear and understood by all, and that the enabling legislation expresses those policies.  It would save a lot of time, effort, most of all, money.

Firstly, do we really want to ban plastics?  That’s what the newspapers write, and what policy-makers state.  Do we want to ban a material which is probably among the most important discovery or invention (maybe a combination of both) in history?  Modern day plastics as we know today started at the turn of the 20th century, so it’s basically a little over a century old.  But check what you’re wearing, the items in your room, everything you touch from waking up to going to sleep, and plastics prominently figure in our daily life.  Look around and imagine a world without plastics and you’d see we don’t really want to ban plastics, do we?  So, let’s agree we’re referring only to certain kinds of plastics.

What kind?  Well, there are around 20 to 30 different kinds of plastics, some with entirely different physical and chemical characteristics from each other.  The plastic industry usually group this down to about 7 categories.  Maybe, what we are interested in will be Polyethylene terephthalate (#1, PET), as in softdrink PET bottles and Polystyrene (#6, PS), such as plastic bags and Styrofoam.  But we need to check the entire spectrum of plastic products if we want to be specific in what we want (and don’t want).  Don’t just say, “ban plastics.”

There are two reasons why people want to ban plastics (especially plastic bags, PET bottles, and Styrofoam) and these are its two characteristics – 1) being inorganic and taking extremely long time to degrade, and its trait of binding other materials and causing the clogging of drainage pipes and canals.  There might be some dissent to these, especially the latter, but I think the majority believes plastics (these kinds), or their use, should be banned, or at least regulated.  But when we start talking regulation, we will face new issues to consider.

One of the more important issue to debate is really, can we do this locally, or do we need national regulations?  We will tackle that next week.  Next are – what specifically do we regulate?  All?  A few?  All plastic bags or just certain ones.  You only need to search online to see that in many cities of the world, the plastic “thickness” is an important consideration.

(to be continued)