Marvellous plastic: Why demonise a great invention which has benefited us so much?

It is the beginning of Plastic Free July. No doubt, all well meaning citizens, keen to be "part of the solution" as the promo material puts it, are not buying plastic bottles of water. They are looking askance at anyone who even dreams of a plastic straw. They will be buying veggies without plastic wrapping at the supermarket and carrying them home in a nice re-usable hessian bag.

But I am sceptical.

There is no argument that using a long-lasting substance like plastic just once and then throwing it away is wasteful.

Plastic is one of the great inventions that has made our lives easier and safer. Picture: Bloomberg

Plastic is one of the great inventions that has made our lives easier and safer. Picture: Bloomberg

But demonising a great invention which has benefited us so much? I don't want to be part of that. The plastic banners recommend "bin audits" where people at work go through our bins to see where we've gone wrong. My bin is private, thank you. The plastics police can keep out.

It should be said - the demonisers should be reminded - that plastic is one of the great inventions which has made our lives easier and safer.

Plastic wrapping on food diminishes waste by preserving foods for longer and so preventing waste. It keeps the bruising of fruit down - just think of the effect of the bumping and bashing happening in a box of loose apples as it gets transported in a truck.

The industry spends a lot of time and money finding ways of minimising wrapping. It's an easy knee-jerk reaction to look at an apple on a supermarket display and go into a mega-moan about the iniquities of capitalism, but that plastic protection may actually be keeping the burning of carbon fuels down.

Plastic is a light material and light materials are transported with the use of less (global warming) energy.

Plastic is used in the insulation of buildings so that they need less (global warming) energy to heat in summer and cool in winter. In every aspect of our daily lives, marvellous plastic lowers the carbon footprint. It doesn't corrode so underground pipes last longer. It makes our cars lighter so they use less petrol. And so on and so on.

Plastic has its uses. It is a glorious result of our ingenuity. Don't demonise it. Use it.

None of this means that we should be careless. Just chucking away a plastic container after one use is antisocial. But nor does it mean that one of the great inventions of humankind should be demonised. It's not the product which is the problem but how we use it.

Thought rather than crowd think is needed. It might, for example, seem obvious that paper bags are more "natural" than nasty manufactured plastic - but their carbon footprint may well be higher - and they get soggy in the rain.

We should have thoughtful policy - like charging for plastic bags at supermarkets.

But knee-jerk reactions where well-heeled people show virtue leads to bad policy and outcomes.

In Britain over the weekend, the Glastonbury Festival has been going on. The great broadcaster Sir David Attenborough praised the crowd for accepting the festival organisers' ban on the sale of plastic bottles of water. He has largely driven the global movement against the substance through his documentaries showing various species of marine life suffering from the plastic waste we chuck into the ocean.

But, according to the English Daily Telegraph, the reality of the ban then became rather inconvenient to the well-heeled festival goers. In soaring temperatures, some found it irksome to have to queue at special points to refill the containers they had brought from home with tap water - tap water!

A smirk is in order. Glastonbury has become something of a parody in Britain. It's a music festival where the better off slum it, but without too much inconvenience. Two years ago, the local paper reported that festival goers were offered the chance to stay in yurts - Mongolian tents - in a nearby campsite - at the equivalent of $20,000 a go for the top of the range "tenthouse suite".

This year, the big attraction was the Aussie treasure, Kylie Minogue, but the drawback was the risk of dehydration and the indignity of having to wait in line with the great unwashed for a glass of water.

Plastic has its uses. It is a glorious result of our ingenuity. Don't demonise it. Use it.

By the way, I walk to work. What gas guzzler do you drive?

This story In defence of marvellous plastic first appeared on The Canberra Times.