Plastic is not evil: what we do with it can be

Posted on September 12, 2018 in News, Comment, Policy by . Share this article

Director of the Grantham Centre Professor Tony Ryan has spent his life working with plastic, and believes we need to be more nuanced in our understanding of this remarkable but – recently – much reviled material.

As Professor Ryan recently outlined in The Star, single use plastic can have positive environmental consequences, such as increasing food longevity and so preventing food waste. We must, however, balance any gains against the fate of the plastic materials. It is too easy for manufacturers to make cheap, one use plastic packaging because the costs of this are borne by society in general and not the producer or consumer in particular. We need businesses to act responsibly and for governments to enforce good policy – at the moment we are polluting to generate profits for companies and to make things cheaper for us.

Grantham Scholar Harry Wright working at the Za’atari refugee camp

The complexity of our relationship with plastic has been explored further by Professor Ryan in an article for The Conversation, where he argues that plastic is currently integral to our society, “You benefit from plastic from the moment you get up and use your toothbrush or kettle. Plastic is embedded in agriculture – and it keeps you alive if you end up in hospital.”

But plastic could also be part of our response to climate change. For evidence of this we need look no further than Professor Ryan’s student, Grantham Scholar Harry Wright whose research looks at re-purposing used plastic from mattresses to make hydroponic systems (which allow plants to grow without soil). This new ‘soil-less soil’ is already being used in refugee camps and could help agriculture respond to climate change and environmental degradation of soil.  

Professor Ryan has been busy talking about plastic recently:

He was in all 3 episodes of the BBC Radio 4 programme Plastic Fantastic, which examined our love/hate relationship with plastic. You can listen to that here

At the Bordeaux Polymer Conference, Tony chaired a panel discussion ‘Is innovation still the answer to our global issues’, which you can watch here

And an Australian radio show created a cartoon of Tony, inspired by his insistence that the presenters ‘drop their polymers’! You can listen to the conversation that inspired the cartoon here