Demystifying the truth behind plastics and sustainability

March 23, 2023
Sustainability, Borderless Leadership - article

Putting plastics in perspective

In this episode of Borderless Executive Live, our host and founding partner of Borderless, Andrew Kris, is joined by Chris DeArmitt, PhD, President of Phantom Plastics, and author of The Plastics Paradox: Facts for a Brighter Future.

Andrew and Chris take on the controversial topic of plastics waste, as they cast a discerning eye on the environmental impact of plastics compared to other materials and aim to provide a balanced view on one of today’s most controversial debates.

Where do plastics fit into the materials equation?

Today, plastics have a negative reputation and several governmental policies have even been put in place to eliminate plastic pollution. To Chris, however, the matter shouldn’t be dealt with in absolutes. When it comes to plastics, it’s crucial get rid of tunnel vision: “One of the reasons people are against plastics is because they feel that we’re drowning in plastic,” Chris explains. “I think this is because of the perceived growth in the use of plastics in recent decades, starting from zero. By definition, you have infinite growth if you start from zero.”

With the emphasis being put on plastics, Chris believes we’re losing sight of the bigger picture when it comes to materials. “When you look at plastics in relation to other materials, you really see the true scale of the plastics industry. In our total use of materials, plastic is about 0.5% by weight of the materials used.”

In fact, when looking at total use, it’s concrete that takes the top spot at 80%, followed by metals at 10% and wood at approximately 6%. That means in terms of CO2 emissions, fossil fuel usage, and waste, these materials rank higher than plastics. For Chris, if we truly want to decrease the impact of materials on the environment, it’s key to start with the largest: “If you were to make the tiniest improvement in concrete use, that would have more impact than eliminating all plastics. If you’re truly worried about materials use, you can’t just focus on plastic and ignore the other 99.5%.”

Separating fact from fiction 

For Chris, it’s essential to increase public awareness regarding the environmental impact of plastics. That’s why he’s made it his mission to educate himself and others, and make scientifically-proven information easily accessible for everyone. “I’ve read 3000 peer-reviewed papers to find the facts. That’s how you do it as a proper scientist. You don’t make up your mind by finding one piece of data that supports what you want to believe. You have to read everything you can find and then decide what you believe, based on the evidence,” he says.

But educating the public is not enough. Countering disinformation with factual information is just as important. In one example, Chris challenged an article published on the BBC website which showcased a picture of a turtle entangled in a plastic bag. A picture which was subsequently proven to have been photoshopped. This is in addition to many other urban legends doing the rounds when it comes to plastics. “When you make up fiction, the world’s your oyster. But when it comes to facts, it’s a lot more work to go find them,” Chris says. “As a scientist, I am worried that the things we’re doing now [to protect the planet] are scientifically proven to be massively increasing harm.”

To support this, Chris refers to the fact that replacing plastic bags with alternatives can actually be counterproductive. He explains that it takes 3 or 4lb of other materials to replace 1lb of plastics. The weight of a plastic bag, for example, is six grams compared to a paper bag that weighs approximately 60 grams. This means that three to four times more materials are needed, which results in higher energy use and thus CO2 emissions.

“In almost every case, we’re banning or taxing the proven greenest solution. You’re increasing harm by about three- or fourfold by moving to alternative materials.” Chris explains. “So, the irony is that people who care the most are actually doing the most harm because they haven’t checked the facts. I want people to at least have access to the facts.”

Redirecting human behavior

Of course, educating the public on the environmental properties of plastics isn’t enough. We need to also get down to the actual root of pollution issues: human behavior.

“Understanding human behavior is the key to understand the true cause,” Chris believes. “There are studies that show that 81% of litter is dropped intentionally.”

Single-use consumption, improper disposal and incorrect recycling are major contributors to plastic pollution. Making conscious choices, and choosing to recycle and dispose of plastics correctly plays a huge role in mitigating plastic pollution.

“It’s down to people. People call companies like Coca-Cola or Danone polluting, but they’re not dropping litter. They’re making products that their customers then drop. If we blame plastic, metal, or glass, or the company, we’re on the wrong track. We’re blaming the wrong people and we’ll never solve the problem.”

For Chris, focusing measures on redirecting human behavior rather than cutting plastics is key: “The proven solutions are education, fines, and deposit systems. That’s what’s proven to work.” 

Staying critical

So, does that mean that the use of plastics should not be scrutinized? No, not at all.

In fact, Chris himself has spoken up against the improper use of plastic when he acted as an expert witness on class-action case. As a plastics expert, Chris advocated against the use of polypropylene mesh in medical procedures such as hernia and vaginal repairs, as the material has been proven to be unstable and not compatible with the human body, and can cause serious complications. The case led to many women being compensated.

As a plastic materials consultant, Chris simply believes in making sound choices based on solid evidence rather than emotion and misinformation.

“It’s not about defending plastic, it’s about starting with the truth and then making up your mind,” Chris concludes. “I’m not for plastic, I’m for the truth.



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