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16.08.2021
Latest News Insights / Q&A

Exploring the science, facts and fiction of plastics

Dr Chris DeArmitt, world-class plastic materials scientist, and author of The Plastics Paradox. Talking exclusively to John Shipley, Business Unit Director for KM Packaging.

In the introduction to your book, The Plastics Paradox, you have written that everything we've been told about plastics and the environment is a lie. What is the biggest untruth?

That is a tough question to answer because any false information is bad. If I were to pick just one, it would be the myth that we're drowning in plastic.

All the talk online is about plastic when, in fact, plastics make up about 0.5% of the materials we use and the waste we create. We cannot solve our problems by ignoring over 99% of the issue.

'The science shows that plastics are usually the greenest choice'

The paradox is that we're told that plastics are our friend and our enemy. Which is true and why?

Everyone knows that plastics are useful and that they enable our high standard of living. However, people feel that plastics are also a problem. So, what can we do? Well, although we do use too much material and cause too much litter. That is true of all materials.

Science shows that plastics are usually the greenest choice, they generate only 0.5% of all waste, and they are proven to reduce waste dramatically. So, although there are downsides, they have been misrepresented.

Flexible packaging is part of our everyday lives, particularly in the form of supermarket shopping bags. Removal of single-use shopping bags has become a key tactic in the so-called war on plastics. Is that the right approach?

The only way to really know what is green is to look at lifecycle analysis and compare the impact of different material options. There are 25 LCA studies on bags worldwide, and they conclusively prove that the standard plastic bag is greener than the alternatives such as paper, cotton or compostable plastic.

'The public does not realise that we down-gauge plastic products all the time'

Flexible plastic packaging is used extensively for food. Can you provide explain the benefits it delivers?

There is a financial and environmental cost to packaging. So there has to be a reward that outweighs those costs. In the case of food packaging, by making the food last longer, the environmental cost of the packaging is paid back many times over.

What about flexible food packaging and its impact on the environment?

The main impact is when people litter the products. Litter is proven to be caused by people, and the only way to address that is through behavioural changes.

KM Packaging is a global supplier of flexible packaging and lidding films. What can we do better to maximise the benefits delivered?

You know, but the public does not realise that we down-gauge plastic products all the time. There have been massive reductions in materials use for products like bottles, lids, caps, etc. We need to keep doing that, choose the materials proven to be greenest and design for recycling.

What do you think is the best approach for designing for recyclability?

At the moment, products are designed to be as cheap as possible and not for recycling. In order to make sure that the plastic is fit for recycling, we need to use more and better stabilisers.

We also need to use fewer materials to aid sorting and optimise the recycled material's quality. Using fewer colours or no colourants at all also helps.

Clearly, many myths are being shared about plastics, and greenwashing is confusing consumers. What can be done to address this problem?

The NGOs make money by spreading lies that enrage us and make us donate. They are well-funded and have huge marketing machines to spread their lies. The only way to fight that is to have the big corporations activate their own marketing departments.

The UK government is introducing the Plastic Packaging Tax. Do you think that's a positive step?

Taxing or banning the proven greenest materials is unwise and very counterproductive. Any politician who votes for that is either too lazy to check the facts, too stupid to understand the facts or too corrupt to care about the facts, in my opinion.

Is there more that can be done at Government level?

The Government have huge resources, so there is no excuse for them to not look at the science. All they would have to do is spend 15 minutes on my website, and they would see matters very differently. They need to get their information from a real scientist with evidence and not from NGO lobbyists.

What about steps we should take as individuals?

We need to question the information we are being fed. Whenever it comes from someone who wants our money, then we should be suspicious.

No-one can make wise choices without solid information, so I would encourage you to visit the free website, see the free videos and download the book. Guess what – it's free, too.

Bio-based, biodegradable, and oxo-degradable plastics have been touted as viable alternatives. What is your view?

We know that durable materials are greener. We also know that degradation means releasing CO2. Those are the two main reasons why bio and oxo-degradables make little sense.

'If you're worried about birds, then talk to your kitty'

During the current COVID-19 crisis, we've frequently been told about the need to follow the science. What does the science tell us about plastics?

The science tells us a lot, but only if we listen. The science has been done, but the public are not aware of it, which is why I wrote the book. As one example, NGOs like to tell us that plastics are a major threat to turtles, birds and whales, but there are huge scientific studies on those topics, and they don't even mention plastics as a cause.

Cats kill 100 million birds a year in the USA alone. If you're worried about birds, then talk to your kitty.

Looking to the future, what does the future hold for plastics and our industry?

I am a scientist, so I don't really think about the industry and the future. I can say that our present, pleasant lifestyle is enabled by plastics. When given a choice between crawling back into caves or carrying on enjoying life, I suspect people will choose enjoyment.

Can you please sum up your conclusions on the plastics paradox?

I am proud to have amassed the world's largest collection of hard science on topics spanning waste, litter, ocean plastics, microplastics, degradation and more.

It has consumed a huge amount of my time and money, but no one else is checking the facts. If you really care, then take a look and see what the evidence tells us.

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Conclusion:

Dr Chris DeArmitt has provided us with plenty of food for thought. And, while some of his views are considered to be controversial, as he says the facts and science speak for themselves.

What’s also undeniably true is it’s virtually always best to use optimised plastic, and focus on infrastructure for collection and recycling to recover what is currently largely lost value.

Dr Chris DeArmitt's website is here. His book, "The Plastics Paradox, can be read for free here.

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