Eliminating plastic is good right? Maybe …

Often yes.  But it depends what you replace it with or the consequence of the elimination.

Frequently people shift to paper and cardboard.  Which may be good but still represents consumption and comes with varying levels of environmental impact.  Some inconvenient truths on paper:

  • The global consumption of paper and paperboard totalled 408 million tons in 2021 according to Statista. Consumption is projected to continue rising over the coming decade to reach 476 million tons by 2032, with packaging accounting for the largest share of global paper and paperboard production.
  • Other climate change impacts include virgin material sourcing from forests, through production to the end of life when biodegrading paper produces CO2 and Methane, (CH4).  Production of one sheet of A4 can use as much as 20 litres of water, and discharges toxic chemicals, predominantly from the use of chlorine for bleaching.
  • Paper production is also directly responsible for deforestation. The loss of forests is running at an unsustainable pace, with the Northern Hemisphere losing circa 7.6 million hectares per year, predominantly in Brazil. Circa 1 million hectares of peatlands have been drained in Indonesia to create plantations for wood pulp crop, accounting for around 80 million tonnes of Co2 emissions annually.

So not good.  Makes you think eliminate plastic rather than replace?  Ideally yes, with a but.

The but is, what are the damaged goods consequences?  The classic example is food waste.  Zero Waste Scotland has done some hard yards on this issue.  Due to long distance supply chains and our love of tropical fruit and veg, a lot of food is air freighted.  Consequently it’s carbon footprint is relatively high and allowing it to perish wastes all the valuable resources involved from farm to shelf.  Zero Waste Scotland found specifically that 456,000 tonnes of food waste produced in Scottish households were found to contribute to around 1.9m tonnes of CO₂, three times higher than that of the 224,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated.

It’s a mental quagmire.  But most businesses don’t need to be life cycle carbon experts.  Or to audit the environmental impacts of every product.  What they should be doing is asking their suppliers the right questions and collaborating with industry bodies.  Sometimes competitors too.  Then make decisions on the best data available to you and keep reviewing as innovations hit your market.  Just do good business.



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