Think plastic is pure evil? The surprising benefits of the world’s most wasteful material

Plastic isn’t the problem we should be obsessing over right now.
Plastic isn’t the problem we should be obsessing over right now.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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Plastic is polluting our oceans, killing wildlife, and damaging our health, and there are widespread calls to get rid of it. But it isn’t as simple as wishing the pervasive material away.

If we were to get rid of plastic today, the loss of the primary form of food packaging would make hundreds of thousands of people sick. Millions would be starving or dead within the year. Instead of just focusing on ridding the world of plastic, we need to address the underlying systems that churns it out: a global food production system with deeply skewed priorities driven by consumer demands.

There’s no denying that plastic is a major problem for the planet. In 30 years, researchers estimate (pdf) that our oceans will contain more plastic by volume than fish. In 1964, we produced 15 million tons of it. That grew to to 311 million tons in 2014, and that’s expected to double in the next two decades.  The way we’re going, a great deal, if not most, of that plastic will end up on landfills, in turtles’ stomachs, or in our bodies. Microplastics end up in animals, and enter the human food chain. Larger plastic gets stuck in animals’ stomachs, blocking their digestive tracts and ultimately killing them.

Late last year, almost 200 countries agreed to monitor and attempt to curb their plastic pollution. But to envision a world without plastic would require us to first change the basic fabric of how our societies function.

A major reason that plastic exists today is because people want affordable and conveniently sourced food on their table. In order to meet this desire, we have developed centralized food supply chains that criss-cross our countries and the oceans. These supply chains are also driven by monoculture crop production, which allows companies economies of scale. This means they can produce larger quantities for fewer inputs, such as water and chemical fertilizers, to offer you cheaper food. Our demand for what these supply chains can deliver has only grown: In terms of world merchandise trade, agricultural products (which is not all food, but a fair portion of it is) were worth $964 billion in 2006, jumping to $1.61 trillion in 2016.

In order for this complex and lucrative international food supply chain to deliver your favorite nibbles to your local supermarket, it first needs to be wrapped in such a way that it can arrive—often from another country—pathogen-free and with an increased shelf life. Enter plastic.

Even if your food is only moving within your region or country, just think of the number of people who come into contact with it: from producers, processors, and manufacturers to distributors, traders, and retailers. Now imagine that there was no barrier between your food and them. The globalization of the food supply chain means that pathogens in one country are better able to find their way from one country into another. The “mass packaging of food is an important barrier against microbiological contamination,” writes nutrition professor Thomas Sanders in a paper in the British Medical Journal.

“In the early days of agriculture, leaves and animal skin were used as packaging materials to carry food over short distances and to secure them for later use,” post-harvest technology professor Linus Opara wrote in a paper published in the African Journal of Agricultural Research. “In modern food systems, the principal functions of packaging have widened to include containment, protection, communication, and convenience.”

Once it arrives in the supermarket (hopefully) pathogen-free, plastic also helps keep your food separate from other food products and prevents the ripening effect caused by ethylene, a hormone found in plants.

As a result of plastic, you are now able to safely eat food from all over the world for longer periods of time. Once upon a time, it was not possible to live in the United States and eat kiwis from New Zealand, or strawberries from South Africa. Plastic is part of the reason that we now can.

Beyond serving our own taste buds, plastic is huge part of the battle against malnutrition in the developing world. People in developing countries are less likely to eat enough fruit and vegetables, and according to the World Health Organisation, about 1.7-million deaths worldwide (almost 3% of all deaths) are attributable to low fruit and vegetable consumption. If plastic was not so pervasive for food preservation, more communities could suffer from malnutrition.

If we want to get rid of plastic—and there are many compelling reasons why we should—we need to change the way food production and transportation works, as well as check our desires to have cheap, convenient foods whenever we want them.

One option is to use a different packaging. It might not be as effective as plastic in terms of separating food from people and other types of food, but it would mean that we are reducing the amount of use-once-then-throw-away packaging that is finding its way into oceans and landfills. There are a number of really cool innovations that could be the beginning of this trend, such as bio-nanocomposites and plant-based packaging. But these innovations need investment and battle-testing before they can take on the ease and price of plastic packaging — otherwise more people will be unable to afford the fruit and vegetables that keep them healthy.

Another option is to up our recycling game to reuse the plastic that we are producing.

Or, and this is the nuclear option, perhaps we should rather be talking about overhauling the way we produce food. As long as we have centralized food production, we will have plastic. That food production machine wastes, loses, or leaves to rot about 1.3-billion tons of food annually. In fact, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food annually as all of sub-Saharan Africa produces.

So, perhaps we are having the wrong conversation. Plastic is the symptom. Our centralized food system is the disease. To get rid of plastic would quite literally be to change the world—and that is what we should be fighting for. A world in which we phase out plastic, yes. But first, a push to change how we source food (like buying more at local gardens and farmers markets), and a push to make retailers change their food sourcing practices, including supporting permaculture organizations and training.