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The Plastics Paradox: Why We Need to Rethink the Material’s Reputation

September 18, 2022
September 18, 2022
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Green plastic, if the dominant narrative is to be believed, is an oxymoron. After all, have we not been confronted with consumer products wrapped in plastic upon plastic, the pictures of turtles caught in six-pack rings, the mountains of debris sitting in landfills, the eye-watering 14 million tons of microplastic sitting on our ocean floors, according to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)?

Independent scientist Dr. Chris DeArmitt begs to differ, with an abundance of peer-reviewed evidence to make his case. A Fellow and Chartered Chemist of the Royal Society of Chemistry, as well as a Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, DeArmitt has dedicated his career to polymer science. He has held positions as Manager in Polymers & Coatings for LKAB Minerals, Chief Scientist at Hybrid Plastics, Inc., and Global Product Development Manager at BASF prior to setting up the consultancy Phantom Plastics in 2009.

He published The Plastics Paradox in March 2020, which is available as a free PDF online in several languages for any interested parties. His desire to make this information accessible for all continued with the upload of “The Great Plastics Distraction Talk” to YouTube, a two-part dive into debunking all the current myths and misunderstandings surrounding the material’s impact on the environment, alongside another talk on the best environmental options for our future based on present data. For those with only a few minutes to spare, he published a 5-minute-read overview of the most vital stats.

For The Plastics Paradox, DeArmitt spent 1,500 unpaid hours combing through 3,000 peer-reviewed articles. Citing data from Materials and the Environment: Eco-Informed Material Choice, he discovered that plastics only account for 1% of society’s material use. Ceramics and concrete meanwhile constitute 84%, natural materials like wood 9%, and metals 6%. Global plastics consumption may be 370 million metric tons per year, but it pales in comparison to the 90 billion metric tons of overall materials used.

Looking at the aforementioned examples of plastic’s environmental impact, the leading cause of death for loggerhead turtles isn’t plastic pollution but shrimp trawling, fishing, collision with boats, and dredging, according to the 1990 publication Decline of the Sea Turtles: Causes and Prevention by the Committee on Sea Turtle Conservation. While it is typically cited that ~10 million tons of microplastic enter our oceans from rivers every year, the latest best estimate is far lower. Scientists found a serious error in their prior calculations and now state the most accurate figure is not millions of tons per year, but ~6000 tons. One would expect there to be news headlines covering this wonderful finding, but where are they?

After completing a comprehensive review of the science, DeArmitt realized that the current approach to waste reduction was in fact making the wrong material its target, with misinformation and miseducation abound in not just the industry but amongst the general public. In some cases, the proposed solutions were actually contributing more to the problem, with a study by the American Chemistry Council and TruCost showing that the environmental cost of plastic is 3.8 times less than alternative materials. In order to combat our current waste crisis efficiently and quickly, he advocates for a radical shift in the sustainability paradigm towards a model that is based on the larger body of science and evidence.

Read on for an eye-opening discussion on the surprising truth about plastics.

I'm curious as to why the prevailing narrative that's managed to dominate the media has been all about plastic being bad for the environment, and obviously, your work presents the opposite.

What I found is that people aren't really checking the facts. For example, people say plastics last 450 years, right? There's never been a single scientific publication in the history of the universe that said that—somebody made it up in a book. I actually have the book here [Environmental Hazards: Marine Pollution by Martha Gorman, page 8]—some author just pulled it out of thin air without any evidence. People get something that sounds like a great sound bite and it sounds dramatic—”there's going to be more plastic than fish in the sea”—there's no evidence for that either. Or [that] we eat a credit card's worth of plastic a week; the latest scientific publication said it would take over 20,000 years to eat a credit card's worth of plastic.

There's a lot of organizations getting rich by just making stuff up, and some of the people from those organizations have even admitted that. If you're looking at Greenpeace, for example, Dr. Patrick Moore, who was their president, has actually left in disgust and written two books saying that their business concept is just to make up crazy stuff, enrich themselves, and [that] they abandoned the environment years ago.

People are making stuff up and nobody is really checking it. It's a shame. It's so much easier to repeat something that's a tasty sound bite than it is to do the homework. It's 100 times easier to just go with the turtle with a straw up its nose—there's no evidence for that either. That's pretty much what it is: the money is in lying, and refuting it is just too much work for most people. That seems to be the issue. In fact, Brandolini’s Law states that it takes a disproportionate amount of energy to disprove nonsense than it did to make it up in the first place.

Proposing what you have about plastic, what kind of feedback have you run into from other people around that?

In the very beginning, it was pretty negative, because what I was saying was the opposite of what they had heard. If you look at science, there's a thing called the illusory truth effect, and that basically says that it is proven that all you have to do is keep telling the same lie, and even the most intelligent people will believe you if you repeat it enough times. So that's where I started from—I was the only one showing the evidence and I guess people thought, this can't be right.

But then as people started checking into it, everything I say is supported with scientific citations. Anyone can click on it and verify what I've just said. Everything I quote in my book and on the website is in inverted commas, it's literally copied and pasted from the studies with no spin on it. The more people started checking it, the more they realized that I was right and the more international support I got. I've got people translating into their own languages because they're so passionate about it. I've got companies calling me about it, I've had requests for interviews and podcasts. Even the presidents of some companies are following me and liking my posts. It started off pretty rocky [with] a lot of people attacking me, but now it's turned around to people supporting me for the most part.

What I found interesting, too, was specifically the topic of microplastics degrading and seeping into our water supply. But as you mentioned, other materials do that as well, and those are actually more harmful than plastic.

It's bizarre isn't it? When you think of it logically, a rock will turn into a pebble, then that becomes sand, and then dust. Leaves crumble to give leaf dust, bread crumbles to give breadcrumbs. Glass breaks to get little fragments, and then that gets crushed up. We know that every single solid crumbles to dust, and somehow when it comes to plastics, you're like, “Oh, my goodness, these are evil” because they crumble to dust. They just made up a new word for it, they call it microplastic instead of dust. Now all of a sudden it sounds like some unknown scary thing. Whereas we don't talk about micro wood, micro metal, micro glass, micro skin particles which are coming off of us right now and contaminating our air. They seem to have done an amazing job of creating a scary word and a big load of concern. And I think we should be concerned about these things, but we should be concerned to a level that's justified by the evidence.

"What we find is plastics are pretty easy to recycle, about 90% of our plastics can just be remelted into a new part. You have to separate them, but that’s pretty easy."
By Dr. Chris DeArmitt, Author, The Plastics Paradox

I sometimes wonder if there's just a bias around things that sound natural versus things that are artificial. There's flowers that are poisonous and will kill you, but it seems that there's sort of inherent bias towards if it's natural, it can't be as harmful as if it's artificial.

In my book, there is a page [explaining the work of] scientist James Kennedy. He's got a picture of a cabbage with all the cancer-causing and toxic compounds made by the cabbage to protect itself. It's the same with blueberries, raspberries, and all of these things that we think of as natural—[they] are just hundreds of chemicals, many of which are toxic, but because it looks like a cabbage, we don't think twice about it.

Do you have any thoughts regarding biotech-made plastic alternatives? I'm going to assume it's probably more labor intensive to create those, but I'd’ be curious to hear what your thoughts are.

They have been on the market for decades. 1982 was when PHB, for example, was released, and it didn't really take off because it's more expensive, the properties are not great, and it's not green. If you look at the life cycle analysis of a lot of these so-called green plastics, they actually cause more harm than regular plastic. If you look at the life cycle analysis of PLA, which is a plastic made from natural materials that degrades, it actually is more harmful to the environment than polyethylene. So, there's a lot of marketing going on. Whenever somebody sees an opportunity to make money, of course they'll release a product, make claims for it. But the claims are not backed by science. That's what concerns me: most people are making decisions based on fiction, decisions that are proven to actually increase harm. They're doing the opposite of what they intended to do because they didn't check the facts. It's a sad outcome that people who care the most are doing the most harm with their cotton bags and their good intentions.

I think there is also a general distrust in the wider industry, say like the petrochemical industry, which is obviously where most plastic is sourced from. It’s conflicting because on one hand, it's great that people are trying to be mindful. But what do the facts say, if there's more of a carbon footprint on glass than there is on plastic packaging? [In a life cycle analysis of three single-use beverage containers, the greenhouse gas emissions for production were lowest in PET (1,125 per 100,000 ounces of soft drink) versus aluminum (2,766) or glass (4,848)] It’s become almost us versus them, the independent brands with their glass packaging versus the big bad plastics. Do you have any thoughts on virgin versus recyclable plastic?

People think that the plastics and the oil industry are the same thing, and they're not. The oil companies, for the most part, are not selling plastics. There are some, but it's not that common. The plastic companies have to buy their raw materials from the other industry, so these are not some guys who are in cahoots. About 5% of oil is used to make plastics, but plastics actually end up saving more than that amount of oil by making our cars, airplanes, and trains lighter. The net effect of the plastics industry is to reduce oil consumption. That's been proven because it's making you get better miles per gallon in your car, and even that alone reduces oil by more than the 5% of the oil used to make plastics. If it were up to the oil companies, they would presumably be against plastics because they're reducing oil purchases, right? So that's a misconception.

When it comes to recycling, that's an interesting one. What we find is plastics are pretty easy to recycle, about 90% of our plastics can just be remelted into a new part. [Norway’s recent recycling scheme sees 97% of all plastic bottles being recycled.] You have to separate them, but that’s pretty easy. You can even do it in your kitchen right, you put a polyethylene bag in a frying pan and people have made bricks from it. It is possible, it is done, and it is green. You save 75% of the [production] energy by using recycled plastic instead of new plastic.

We know that plastic is usually the greenest solution by life cycle analysis [LCA], and when you recycle, it becomes even greener. Then you get to the question of why isn't it recycled more? There is a conspiracy theory that the plastics companies knew all along it wouldn't be recycled, and they'd been fooling us all along. But when you look into it, what you find is that if we can, we do things that generate money. These companies that spring up to recycle plastics go out of business, because the price is fluctuating and there's not really any money in it. There’s a fundamental reason for that, which I discovered when I was reading more broadly, not just about plastics, but about all materials. The less green a material is, the more expensive it is and therefore more worth recycling. So platinum, palladium, and gold, which are worst for the environment, are expensive, never thrown away, and recycled more. The converse is true, so the greenest materials are so cheap, they are not worth recycling. That’s the problem with plastics, they are so cheap for the same reasons they are so green, which makes it less profitable to recycle. Does that make sense to you? The price of a material depends on the amount of energy, materials, transportation, and water needed to make it. The life cycle analysis depends on the same factors. So, you have a choice between something that's horrendous for the environment, but expensive and well worth recycling, and something which is cheap, green, and not really worth recycling in terms of money. That's the paradox we've had. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s down to profitability.

What we hear is people suggesting, let's use glass or aluminum because of how much energy we used to make it. That's exactly the same reason why we shouldn't be reusing glass and aluminum, because there's so much energy in it. You have to remelt them again and again, at thousands of degrees, so you're just redoing the harm again and again. It's a terrible argument. What we need to do is stick with what we know is greenest according to science and life cycle analysis. It might be wood in some cases. We need to start with that and then recycle it and make it economically viable to do so. If you put a deposit on a plastic bottle, people return it because now it has a value. They don't want to throw away $1. This ensures that it's returned, recycled, and so forth. There are mechanisms for making that plastic waste valuable enough to be recycled.

Something that was mentioned to me in a previous interview was that the trouble with recycled or recyclable plastic is that you can only reuse it a certain number of times before it ends up in a landfill, and that also, at least in the US, it has to go to a specific type of facility and that there actually aren't enough facilities to process all this recycled or recyclable plastic that we're using.

It's true, pretty much everything has a certain number of cycles. They talk about glass and aluminum being infinitely recyclable, but if you check that, it's not true. [During the recycling process, there is a certain amount of dross, or aluminum lost, due to the heating; estimates are around 3%]. Every process has waste, you always have to put in new raw materials. That idea that they're infinitely recyclable, in theory they are, but in practice they're not.

The other thing we have to do is realize that plastics are proven to have massively reduced the amount of material that goes to landfill. A plastic bag weighs about six grams, a paper bag is 60 grams, that's ten times more weight. If you weigh a plastic straw it's less than a gram, whereas a paper straw is about two grams. A pound of plastic ends up being replaced by three or four pounds of another material on average. We know for a fact that although our waste generation has gone up over time, plastic has reduced the amount of material going into landfill. That’s a misconception that plastics are filling up our landfills, when food waste is more than plastic waste. Paper waste is more than plastic. When they go into a landfill, building rubble is usually more than plastic waste. The overall amount of waste generated by plastic, if you look at all waste including industrial waste, accounts for 0.5% of all the waste that humans create. That's disturbing to me, because  environmental groups, material producers, brand owners, and individual consumers are out on this crusade. They're spending trillions of dollars on plastics, advertising, all up in arms, and there's no way you can solve a problem by obsessing over half a percent of it. It'd be like me cleaning my cutlery drawer and thinking the rest of the house is going to clean itself. I'm never going to get anywhere with that approach. Ignoring the other 99.5% of materials and waste will doom us to failure.

There’s also a socioeconomic factor to it, in the sense of people practicing zero waste and plastic-free lifestyles are often in a place of more privilege, where they are able to dedicate more time and money to it. If someone is living paycheck to paycheck and it’s between a 10-cent plastic bag and a $10 cotton tote bag, of course they are not going to go for the expensive alternative.

That's a great point, for a couple of reasons. One is that the cheapest solution is usually the greenest one because that's the one that needed the least energy, the least transportation, the least water to make. That's why it's cheaper, for the most part. Ironically, these rich people go and buy their cotton bag, and they feel like a saint, when in fact they're actually increasing harm. They're on their private jets, going to Davos, and talking about how the environment is being ruined. These people are so busy trying to look virtuous, and they've got the money to do it, but they're doing all the wrong stuff.

You mention stabilizers to help with the lifespan of plastic. What do you think are the best options currently out there, or do we even need to expand the life cycle of plastic?

The greenest things are things that last forever. It’s ironic that everyone's saying we can't make these plastics degrade fast enough, when we know that when things degrade, they give off carbon dioxide. This is exactly why we put things in a landfill where there's no oxygen. We don't want them to degrade because that means giving off carbon dioxide and warming the planet. That's what landfills are for.

This whole argument that plastics aren't degrading fast enough or don't degrade in the landfill, that's right, food doesn't even degrade in the landfill. In Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, archeologists literally dug into landfills and saw newspapers from 50 years ago, avocados, steaks, and stuff that hadn't degraded for decades. The argument that something's not degrading in the landfill is not a good one because landfills are meant to prevent degradation.

When it comes to stabilizers, there's been a quest for 50 years to improve them. I've even come up with new stabilizers and published in this area. They're always trying to improve how we stabilize plastics. That's far more important now because plastics are like spaghetti chains—once you've broken the molecule, they lose their strength. If you take an item, use it for 10 years, and then it's ruined, you can't remelt it and make a good part. That's what the stabilizers prevent.

In the old days, you would let the thing degrade and say, “Oh, who cares? It's going to be used once. I don't care about what it's like at the end of its life.” But now because our mindsets are changing and we know we want to recycle it, we have to put in a lot more and better stabilizers.

On a personal level, what have been your biggest revelations when writing The Plastics Paradox?

After the book was finished, I found out that because I was focused on household waste, and plastics are about 13% [of that], I had missed the bigger picture. I later discovered that household waste is just 3% of all waste we create, and the other 97% is industrial waste. So, it turns out that plastics are half a percent of all the materials we use and a half a percent of all the waste we create. That's mind boggling. To think that people are so focused with a microscope on this tiny, tiny fraction of our problem, it'd be like trimming my toenails and thinking I'm going to be healthy. That was the biggest revelation.

The second-biggest revelation has been that there's nobody doing more harm than the environmental groups. They're just out there saying things which are patently untrue. Even if you correct them as a scientist and you send them 100 articles to show that they're wrong, they don't care, they never update their website. They perpetuate these lies and are getting hundreds of millions of dollars. They're misleading the public and misleading politicians. I hope somebody sues them, to be honest, because they're just, according to their own members in some cases, defrauding the public.

Our politicians are making decisions based on fiction. India just banned plastic bags when we know for 100% certainty that is going to increase harm based on 28 LCA studies. Countries are banning things which are proven to be the best solution. It's insane. Of course, these bans end up being reversed some years later. Even if you are a politician, don't set yourself up for failure by failing to Google “LCA bag.” It takes 30 seconds.

It's an odd irony, isn't it?

Everyone assumes they must have good hearts. They all started out that way, but as you see, there are many books now where people have left those companies and said this has just turned into a big money-grabbing business like any other, and they lost their principles along the way.

Since plastic only accounts for such a minuscule amount of total waste, what material or aspects should we be focusing on instead if we actually want to make an impact?

Whenever you have a problem, you always have to address the biggest one, right? Maybe it's your finances, maybe it's cleaning the house, maybe you need a new car. You can't focus 100% of your attention on everything. If we look at what materials are the biggest, 80% of the materials we use are concrete and ceramics. Then we have metal and wood, which are about five or 10%. I would attack the biggest piece of the pie first, it just makes sense, but people aren't doing that. Everyone's so distracted on this tiny sliver that they're completely ignoring the things that could make an impact.

I think it's also because it's one of the most visible ones. When you mentioned concrete and ceramics being so big, my first thought was okay, concrete makes up buildings and things like that, but with ceramics I just think of fancy porcelain tea cups. Who's using a bunch of that? In some ways it’s like, what is the most obvious target that we can replace? Even with the landfills, what you mostly see in those pictures that are published are plastic. Also, the fear around ingesting plastics, fear is a really powerful tool if you want to get people on board, that's for sure.

If you want to get your hands in people's pockets, make them angry or make them scared. That seems to be the way that these green organizations work, according to insiders.

"The life cycle analysis of containers always shows that plastic is the greenest option."
By Dr. Chris DeArmitt, Author, The Plastics Paradox

I'm curious if you gained any insight specifically regarding the beauty industry?

Probably the most single relevant thing is, I looked at the life cycle analysis of containers. People say we can't have plastic, it looks bad, we’ve got to use paper, glass, or metal. The life cycle analysis of containers always shows that plastic is the greenest option. If you look at the amount of water, energy, and CO2, you end up seeing that glass and metal are way, way worse than polyethylene, polypropylene, or PET. But ask yourself: do you want to try to look good, or do you want to be good? Looking good is, “Look at my cotton bag, I'm such a great person, I'm hugging the trees,” but you're damaging the planet. But being good is actual work. It means spending a few minutes to go and find the facts. Don't just jump out there with passion. Passion is a good thing if it's directed, but if your passion is focused on things which are proven to increase harm, and when you tell people [the truth] they  don't want to hear it. My third-biggest revelation is that people actually don't care, because they haven't got five minutes to look at the facts. When you show them the facts, they're just pretending to look good online. It's called virtue signaling.

I've written some environment-focused pieces, and will try and look into statistics, back up with numbers from reputable sources where I can, but then I think the problem too is if you don't have the whole context. I could have a number of how many tons of plastic are produced every year by the beauty industry, but how is that in relation to all the other ways? I've definitely fallen prey to it. Obviously, you've spent so much time and hours digging into this to really get the full picture.

I started this because my daughters were being taught lies at school. They were told that the plastic doesn't degrade, and that's just a lie. There are thousands of scientific, peer-reviewed articles showing that plastics degrade. I've studied this area. I had one of the best teachers, Professor Norman Billingham, who is a legend in this area. He's been studying polymer degradation for decades. He was the Editor in Chief of the journal [Polymer Degradation and Stability], that's got hundreds and hundreds of articles spanning 50 years on polymer degradation. Polymer scientists know that these things are degrading so quickly. It's almost like an apple that you cut open. Some plastics are that bad in terms of falling to pieces. Polypropylene is unusable without stabilizers. They literally spray stabilizer on it the instant it’s made just like you would put lemon juice on a freshly cut apple to stop it going brown. Both the PP and the apple oxidize that rapidly.

It's easy to come up with a number and say we make this many millions of tons of plastic, and we can't relate to that. These numbers are so big that you've fallen prey to it, and I have as well. Even as a scientist, I would have to step back and say, “Well, what is this number? How big is that compared to wood waste, plastic waste, paper waste, food waste, and overall industrial waste?” If you start focusing the microscope on this tiny, tiny sliver, you end up making terrible decisions. You have to zoom out a little bit and see the big picture. And some of it's very easy. You could ask Siri about the global consumption of plastics and the global consumption of materials, and within 30 seconds, anybody—a Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, any of these organizations or the government—could have known that plastics are half a percent of the materials we use. How can it be that they've been rambling on about this for 30 years? On and on about plastics and the volumes we use without once Googling how much it is in perspective?

With the publication of your book and your work at Phantom Plastics, what's on the horizon?

I'm always a bit torn because I'm a crusader for truth. I don't care if people hate plastics, as long as their hate is based on something that's true. I do find it important to keep providing that information, at the same time, this is all unpaid work. I'm always torn between how much time I put into these public service podcasts and on the other hand feeding my family with my paid work, which is all about the science of plastics. It's a tricky balance.

It’s also difficult because it's such a beast to go up against. That system has been in place for what feels like such a long time. Individuals can feel like, “I don't work in the plastics industry. I don't have a say, who's going to listen to me?”, but history has shown that can snowball into really bad things happening.

I'm fearless because I have truth on my side. I don't care what people think about me. If I wanted to be popular, I wouldn't be saying any of this stuff. Nobody wants to hear anything that I'm saying, but I think it's important that people can find the facts. The fourth revelation is how desperate people are to cling to the lies they believe now. They'll say we can't trust a plastics expert to tell us about plastic. That's a fascinating argument. So, when you go to the hospital, do you insist on being treated by the janitor because I would never be treated by a medical professional who's devoted their lives to understanding the illness? When you want to get your hair cut, you don't go to a car mechanic. When you want to get your car fixed, you don't go to a hairdresser. Their approach now is to, rather than sit down and spend three minutes looking at the facts and even considering it, try to push aside the credibility of the person. They say that I am paid by the plastics industry and my income is actually not from the plastics industry—that's disclosed [ ~ 59% NAICS 424690 Chemicals, ~17% NAICS 423990 Durable Goods, ~15% NAICS 541110 Legal, ~9% NAICS 325211 Plastics].

They say the work is not peer reviewed. Yes, it is. It's based on 3,000 peer-reviewed articles, and they're all on the website you couldn't be bothered to visit. People are so desperate to cling to these falsehoods because it's less work for them than actually considering new evidence. That's a problem. If people are so lazy that they can't even spend a couple of minutes considering another side, that's not a path to success.

A journalist just tried to get someone to debate me. They spent three months trying to get anyone from Greenpeace, a World Wildlife Fund, or any of these so-called green groups to debate me and none of them would. They all declined. Why? Because they have no evidence. They're just spouting nonsense, if they go up against somebody who's got hundreds of articles to support what they say, they're just going to look like fools. They don't want to be exposed.

We know that a plastic bag left outdoors degrades in less than one year. It falls to  pieces, it vanishes. That's what the peer-reviewed science shows us. I've written to the environmentalist websites again and again to correct their statements, I've sent scientific proof again and again, they don't care. No interest in updating it. No interest in retracting it. If they're interested in the environment, they should be interested in the truth.

It’s like a Jenga house, if you will. You remove one stick and it all comes crumbling down.

I hope it does come crumbling down one day, because otherwise we're just going to increase harm based on fiction, and that's sad for everyone.

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