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Plastic comes in all shapes and sizes: from bags and packaging, to microplastics that are found in cosmetic products that many people use daily. Due to this, plastic has been found in every known ecosystem on the planet. It is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. This could change if we remove plastic from our lives. However, there is a huge economic backlash to this idea and it would be very difficult to implement.

Plastic is particularly problematic as it doesn’t biodegrade quickly; it usually takes about 450 years, although this varies with the type of plastic. The oldest plastic waste is about 120 years old, but the majority of it was created after the 1960s, when plastic became ubiquitous. This means that most plastic currently found across the planet is going to remain intact on Earth for at least 400 years.

Human mismanagement of this material has had disastrous impacts. Ninety percent of birds have plastic in their stomachs and millions will die from it. The plastic does not break down so cannot pass out of the bird’s system. Consequently, they feel less hungry as their brain thinks that their stomach is full, so they don’t get the food and nutrients they need.

Plastic is destroying life and ecosystems on our planet. So can we adapt to live without it?

We could use bioplastics as an alternative as they are made from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, food waste and woodchips. As of 2014, they made up only 0.2% of the global polymer market. It is possible to use them in the same way as chemically created plastics. Bioplastics also leave a smaller energy footprint and do not contain BPA, which is a toxic substance that can be found in petroleum plastics. BPA can leach into food and cause health complications, especially during reproduction, with offspring being born heavier and more likely to be insulin resistant.

Bioplastics are not totally beneficial to the environment, as they do not always biodegrade faster than petroleum plastics. Additionally, they are difficult to dispose of correctly as consumers are unsure if they are biodegradable or not. Their production is also known to cause eutrophication, where water is over-enriched by nutrients, deoxygenation of water and consequently
the death of aquatic organisms.

However, biolplastics are an alternative to traditional plastics. Due to the vast use of plastic, we will need to replace petroleum plastics with a number of different materials.

Another alternative is paper and cardboard. This would replace plastic utensils, cups and bags as well as other items. This is better than plastic as the material is recyclable, and trees are a renewable resource if we plant them and chop them down at a sustainable rate. For  example, paper cups generate 28% fewer greenhouse gases them plastic cups and biodegrade 3,650 times quicker.

However, paper cups are heavier than plastic cups, hence they require more energy to transport. Furthermore, plastic cups use half the amount of water in production than paper ones. In a world where the UK will not have enough water to meet demand by 2050, this is another key issue to consider, before fully moving towards paper cups.

More widely, there are huge economic complications to removing plastic from the global market. Petroleum plastic comes from crude oil, which drives the global economy. A general decrease in the demand for oil globally would have serious consequences for countries like Saudi Arabia, whose economies rely on oil. It is not just the source that is affected, but plastic products would have to change. Toys, clothes, packaging and bags would have to change or disappear. This would mean all businesses concerned would be affected. Manufacturers particularly would be affected by ending plastic completely. It will be incredibly costly and may cost some smaller businesses a significant portion of their profit. Removing plastic from our lives will cause economic damage on a global and a local scale and with the global economy still recovering from the 2008 crash, removing a product that makes up around 3% of the global economy is unthinkable. Hence, the removal plastic from our lives and consequently the global economy is not economically viable.

Overall, the removal of plastic from our lives would visually benefit the environment and in many ways would reduce pollution. While alternatives to plastic can be better for the environment in some cases, often they are worse for the environment in other ways. Theoretically, we could live without plastic but, in reality, alternatives may cause more problems than they solve.

Furthermore, the economic factors mean that it is incredibly difficult to end plastic in a way that will benefit everyone. Due to the difficulty in mobilising people and the immense backlash that would come from countries and businesses alike, it is not plausible to live entirely without plastic. It is much easier, and more impactful, to make smaller changes

Anya Nash is the winner of the 2019 Tamworth Prize and is currently a student at JAGS sixth form.