Plastics: Part 1 - Is plastic-free feasible?

Unless you elect to live in the stone age you will need plastic. Life without it is uncomfortable and unsafe.


The inconvenient and very awkward truth about the problem of plastic is overuse and the global reluctance to address this. Unless you elect to live in the stone age you need plastics. Within minutes of getting out of bed into a life without plastics you would be uncomfortable and very unsafe. As you step out of bed many of us put our feet on a carpet containing plastic fibres. The bristles in our toothbrushes are variants of the same fibres. The water flowing through the tap can only flow because the valves in the taps and the rest of the system are made from elastomers. 

Making a plastic free breakfast would be almost impossible for the vast majority of us who could not cook on an open fire because the electricity in the circuits relies on insulated switching gear. The copper used in making the wiring has to be mined. The other metals used in making pipes for liquids and gas also have to be mined. Mining and refining rely on equipment and processes that cannot happen without thousands of plastic parts, not forgetting the miles and miles of electrical insulation around the wires of countless circuits. So, it does not matter where the electricity, water or gas could come from if it can’t be delivered to or used at the point of need in a plastic free world.

Without the heating on to fight off a chilly morning or make a warm drink some will succumb to infection and end up with bacterial pneumonia. The chances of dying from this common infection would substantially increase to about 1 in 3 without antibiotics. The production of antibiotics requires highly technical plastics used in piping for air and nutrient delivery systems. The loss of life caused by unavailability of antibiotics would be catastrophic in a plastic free world. 

The huge worldwide effort to fight Covid has only been possible because of the use of plastics at the heart of the infrastructure that guarantee vaccine identity, purity, sterility, efficacy and safety that we have all been desperate for.

The truth is that plastics are not the problem, it’s the abuse of the resource of plastics that is the problem.

If we treated all plastic (which are petroleum derived products) as a finite and therefore precious resource we would then reserve plastics for important uses. Here is the crunch. What do we all agree is the correct use of plastics? Is it the millions of tons of excessive single use plastic packaging, or the seals, electrical insulation and technical mouldings, sheets and tubes we all derive enormous benefit from? 

In every sphere of life we all need a certain amount of guaranteed high quality plastic to meet the compliance demands of manufacturing. This can include medical, industrial, aeronautical, food and thousands of other important applications. To put it bluntly, would anyone accept a surgical implant made from grubby old food pots, no matter how much you washed them out before hand?

In our opinion the only viable option is to reduce the use of plastics for only those purposes where it really matters. This is where product designers can make the most difference. By using materials sensibly and designing proper products for a proper purpose we can use plastics in the right way and live with them in our world. 

Let's create something great together.

*This post was inspired by a satirical piece about the petroleum industry and although the author is unknown to us we credit them for the premise and its contents adapted to make the story relevant to plastics.