What to do about plastics

When it comes to plastics, there’s a lot to like and a lot to hate about them. Or maybe not the plastics themselves – but the thoughtless, irresponsible way people dispose of them. Plastic junk is choking the oceans, steams and ditches. The human race does not seem capable of containing plastic litter. Or any litter, but plastic has that annoying staying power. It endures.

But oh boy is it handy! Stable, infinitely manipulatable into shapes and degrees of hardness or softness. It’s hard to imagine life without plastic products – everything from the medical devices that keep people alive in the intensive care wards of hospitals, to diapers to cups and plastic wrap.

What did we use before? Paper, mainly. And various fabrics. Lead pipes! China. All of the products that plastic replaced got knocked back on their heels or right off their feet.

Plastic is so convenient. So inexpensive. So easy to discard, without a thought for the consequences. Technology changed, but human behaviour didn’t. Clay returns to the earth; so does paper, fairly easily.

Plastic lasts. It’s both the blessing and the curse of the stuff. Those pipes bringing water into your house, for example, will last until long after the proverbial cows come home.

So what to do about it? The Government of Alberta perhaps recognizes the problem (and certainly an opportunity) in its vision of making Alberta a “centre for excellence in plastic diversion and recycling by 2030.”

This is an admirable goal. The actual economics of it? There’s some work to be done there. If it was easy, or obvious how to turn surplus plastic into profit, somebody would already be doing it. The Chinese, with oceans of cheap labour, have given up. Too costly to do all the sorting and cleaning that the people at the other end of the supply chain (us) are too lazy to do themselves.

Even at its best, a program to divert and convert plastics into other products probably won’t work outside of the big cities. That leaves those of us in the hinterland out of luck. Unless somebody comes up with a very bright idea. (See Page 10 of this week’s Leader for news about one of these).

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