Kim Ragaert
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I'm here to preach at you - to preach for a plastics rehab. Now, you might be expecting me to say that we as a society, we need to kick the habit of plastics. Uh-uh. I am up to something a little more devious tonight: I am here to make you doubt. I am here to tell the side of the story that does not get social media coverage. And why do I have to do this? Because we hate plastics. We despise plastics. Plastics can't possibly be sustainable. They're even made from oil. Booo, plastics! (Laughter) Plastic waste is overwhelming us today. Just last month, a dead whale beached up with 40 kilograms of plastic in its stomach. We read reports that if we do nothing, by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean. And plastic waste in the environment is now so abundant it has been suggested as a marker for the current geological era. Oh! That's bad. But are we being entirely fair to plastics? Are they really the ones who are destroying the planet? Let's have a look. [Are we being fair to plastics?] Generally, we are mad at plastics for not degrading into the environment. So what? Why do you expect them to? Metals don't degrade into the environment. We don't blame them. Plastics are a resource, just like the metals, and we should not be thinking in terms of throwing resources into the world and expecting them to just disappear. No. Recover them; recycle them. Keep them in the materials loop and out of the environment in the first place, and get this degradation nonsense out of your head. When we think about shaming plastics, we tend to wander towards food packaging. We think that most of them are unnecessary. Are they really? Example: less than two grams of plastic will package a cucumber. This will extend the shelf life - this is the time it will stay good in your fridge - by 11 days. The shelf life of a steak is extended by 26 days. So a little bit of plastic will prevent a whole lot of food waste. On average, the CO2 emissions required to make this plastic packaging is less than 10% of the CO2 we have emitted already to make the food in the first place. Moreover, this plastics packaging will prevent CO2 emissions by preventing the food waste, and these prevented CO2 emissions are five times as high as what we needed to produce it. So plastic is fantastic if you think about it! Yet still, we - most of us here - are still convinced that the alternatives to plastic are always better. Why is that? You want to do the right thing for the environment, so you make decisions based on what you know to be right, without any scientific evidence, but because "it is known." This is what we call environmental folklore. It is the stories we take for granted without checking the facts. And it is possible to check those facts. Scientists can make an objective comparison between products by taking into account not only the amount of material something will use, but also how much land, water, and energy you will consume along the way just to make the product. All of this translates into a footprint, and in terms of footprint, we tend to focus on CO2 emissions, but there's more. There's also effects on human health, on the ozone layer and quality of land and water. What we - what you - need to realize in all of this is that plastics are strong, lightweight materials. They have half the density of glass, about the same density as paper, but because they are so strong, we can make plastics packaging really thin compared to the others. So almost always, the plastic packaging will consume a lot less resources and be a lot more efficient in transportation. Are you ready for some numbers? Bottles. Let's go there. We use about 24 times as much glass as we would plastic to package the same amount of liquids, and because glass is heavier, we will spend almost twice as much on transport. I can hear all of you thinking it at me aggressively right now: "We can reuse those glass bottles," right? Yes, you can. But not indefinitely. You can reuse a glass bottle eight times before it needs to be remelted into a new bottle. But okay, even if you do that, you will be using for your intermediate cleaning a lot of water and quite some aggressive chemicals. But still, fair is fair. We can reuse the bottles eight times, so these 24 blocks can be reduced to three. If we're being entirely fair, however, plastic bottles do get recycled, at least here in Europe. And let's be really pessimistic about that; let's assume that only 50% of bottles get recycled. Then still, we can also halve the amount of plastics used. So even if we take the reuse of the glass into account, we still use six times as much glass as we would plastics. That is an enormous amount of material, which you need to source and then convert into bottles, all the while using energy and water and emitting CO2. Did you know that glass melts at 1500 degrees Centigrade, while the plastic used for bottles melts at 300? The amount of energy required for glass bottle production is staggering, and if you take all of it together, then glass really isn't the green champion we would like it to be. In fact, plastic bottles, supported by a good recycling scheme and consumers - you and me - who effectively recycle, is much better for the environment as a whole. Bam, myth busted. What's next? Bags, I would think. Plastic grocery bags. Whole cities and countries are now starting to ban plastic bags outright. We should not be cheering this on. This is why. Let's make a comparison. We take the absolute worst case for plastics: one of those thin plastic bags made entirely out of new materials, which you will throw away after a single use. You don't have to, but let's assume that you do. Let's compare this to the very best possible scenario for paper: a paper bag made entirely out of recycled paper which will go back to recycling afterwards. The plastic bag weighs 20 grams, the paper bag 50. Paper requires a lot more energy to produce and to recycle. Also, it uses up water, land, and trees. If we calculate it all through, the footprint of that thin, throwaway plastic bag is so small that you would have to reuse the paper bag four times for it to be as environmentally friendly as a plastic bag. Four times. Now, let's be honest, which one of you uses the same paper bag four times? No one. "But," you will defensively say, "then surely my sturdy cotton shopper is saving the world." Well ... The production of cotton, agriculturally, is so intensive in the usage of land and water that you would have to reuse this cotton shopper over 170 times for it to break even environmentally. If you go to the store every week, use the same bag every week, that would amount up to over three years of consecutive shopping just to beat the thin, throwaway plastic bag. In fact, the very best alternative is the reusable plastic bag, which you can buy at the cash register. The heavier, sturdy ones, they will break even environmentally after 20 times of reuse. That is less than half a year of consecutive shopping. After this first half year, everything that follows is pure environmental gain. Take that, plastic haters. (Laughter) Of course, it's not all rainbows and unicorns for plastics. Let's circle back to plastic waste in the beaches and in our oceans. It's bad. It really is. But can we blame plastics, the material, for that? If you are stuck in a huge traffic jam because someone parked their car in the middle of the street and everything is blocked, do you blame the car? Or do you blame the idiot that put it there? Research shows that over 80% of littering is intentional and performed by individuals. That's you and me, baby. Us. The consumer. Not big bad industry, not plastics the material. We are the idiots. So what should we do, then? It clearly doesn't work if we say, "But just stop throwing it away." The litter is there. The idiots are abundant. Should we now ban all plastics to protect us from our idiot selves? Well, some more scientists did the math on that. If we were to ban all plastic packaging and replace them with the alternatives - paper, glass, aluminum - the amount of materials required, the amount of energy required, and the resulting CO2 emissions would explode, and we as a society are trying to reduce our emissions, not increase them. So banning all plastics is definitely not the way to go. Then, what is? Are you confused yet? Are you depressed yet? Don't be. Be critical instead. Do not go blindly to war on plastics just because they are the most visibly littered material. Realize that plastics are functional and precious resources, which we need to keep in the materials loop. And also realize that you have power. Maybe even superpowers. You are the consumer. You can drive the market to sustainability if you do it together. Final example: Did you know that dark-colored bottles, like the ones they use for some washing detergents, are very bad for recycling? It's because in automated bottle sorting, dark colors do not get recognized, so it goes to trash. Producers know this. And still, they put the bottles on the market. Why? Because it's pretty, and marketing says that you and I will buy it rather than a white bottle. If you do not buy products in hard-to-recycle plastic packaging, they will not make them. If you do not buy individually wrapped cookies, they will not sell them. If you demand to be able to take back your plastic bags and foils to the store for recycling, they might just listen. So please, have a plastics rehab. But let it be in your perceptions as well as in your well-intended actions. Dare to think beyond this environmental folklore that plastics must always be bad. Check your facts. Be a hero, not a hater. Thank you. (Applause)