The rise of anti-plastic rhetoric in recent years has led us to believe that plastic is an anathema, a substance to be shunned and removed from society. At the same time, the plastic-free movement has done wonders for producers of products that are deemed to be more sustainable. With the resulting demand for glass bottles and wooden utensils growing year on year, many products that rely on plastic have come in for criticism. However, there is a flipside to this perceived evil and, as part of Plastic Free July, we have decided to take a moment to examine the messaging surrounding the plastic-free movement and consider whether it is actually human behaviour that might be most at fault.

Plastic and the environment

Discussions about plastic pollution relate to the accumulation of plastic objects and particles in the environment – the land and sea – that adversely affect wildlife, wildlife habitat, and humans. Plastic pollutants can be categorised based on size into micro-, meso-, or macro debris.

The case for plastics

As a material, plastic is inexpensive, but also very adaptable, which we, as people, benefit from as we require a lot of plastic for many different uses. However, the chemical structure of most plastic renders it resistant to many natural processes of degradation which makes it slow to degrade. Together, these two factors allow large volumes of plastic to enter the environment as mismanaged waste and to thus remain in the ecosystem.

Plastic for medical and pharmaceutical use

Turning Plastic Free July on its head, it’s worth considering how plastic can actually be a good thing and how industry, and healthcare especially, relies upon it.

We have all been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and thankfully many of us have been lucky enough to be vaccinated against it. But it is easy to overlook the role of plastic in the fight against Covid-19 – from PPE in hospitals (3,000,000 visors and 50,000 bottles of hand sanitiser per week for the NHS alone) to lateral flow tests. Our lives, and the return to normality, rely heavily upon plastic products.

Plastic barriers have guided us around vaccine centres, while innumerable staff and patients have walked on plastic composite flooring in Covid-19 wards throughout the world’s hospitals.

The possibility of a vaccine has always been our beacon of hope throughout this pandemic, and we are lucky to now be administering these at an exponentially increasing rate around the world. But these would not exist without plastic. In fact, a lack of plastic even threatened the production of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines earlier this year when manufacturers battled to source the giant plastic bags needed to combine the pharmaceutical ingredients.

Plastics are frequently used in place of metal parts in many areas of production with plastic components being far lighter than metal, thus saving vast amounts of energy and resulting in a reduced carbon footprint. The machinery used in manufacturing processes has also become markedly quieter over the years, mostly due to the sound-deadening characteristics of plastic components.

How language has affected our perception of plastic

Plastic is then an incredible material. It is lightweight, recyclable, has a low carbon footprint and a simple manufacturing process. Yet, its benefits have become forgotten over time, lost under misapprehensions fuelled by disturbing images of plastic piled in landfill or affecting marine life.

The recent discussion surrounding plastic has led us to believe that plastic is inherently bad and even toxic to our health. However, producing plastic uses far less energy than producing glass or metal due to its significantly lower melting point. Technological advancements have made plastic cheap to manufacture, and it is also far superior to glass in terms of both production and shipping. Shipping glass containers is fraught with difficulties as it is far heavier and much more fragile. The extra weight combined with excess packaging materials – which are ironically often made of plastic– results in a notably larger carbon footprint than its lighter and more robust alternative.

At the same time, plastic is a pollutant which we humans use relatively poorly. We discard an enormous amount of plastic every day, resulting in horrifying landfill statistics. But this is an opportunity for a rethink rather than speculation, in which language can play a key role.

How we can harness language for good

The conversation thus far seems to have been dominated by the anti-plastic movement. However, the dialogue needs to change to also highlight how plastic benefits our lives, especially from a medical standpoint. Perhaps now could the time to emphasise the opportunities of this incredible material that are currently being lost in a slanted narrative?

If you want to harness the power of language for your products, then speak to the experts at Albion Languages.