But what if we could wave a magic wand and remove all plastics from our lives? For the sake of the planet, it would be a tempting prospect – but we'd quickly find out just how far plastic has seeped into every aspect of our existence. Is life as we know it even possible without plastic?
Today, the packaging industry is by far the biggest user of virgin plastic. But we also use plastic in plenty of longer-lasting ways too: it's in our buildings, transport, and other vital infrastructure, not to mention our furniture, appliances, TVs, carpets, phones, clothes, and countless other everyday objects.
All this means a world entirely without plastic is unrealistic. But imagining how our lives would change if we suddenly lost access to plastic can help us figure out how to forge a new, more sustainable relationship with it.
In hospitals, the loss of plastic would be devastating. "Imagine trying to run a dialysis unit with no plastic," says Sharon George, senior lecturer in environmental sustainability and green technology at Keele University in the UK.
Imagine trying to run a dialysis unit with no plastic –
Even tins of tomatoes and beans would be out – they have an inner plastic coating to protect the food – so we'd have to buy dried pulses in paper bags and cook them at home instead. "People have relied too much on getting the thing they need in the most convenient and easy way," says Iacovidou. "I think we need to get a little bit uncomfortable."
Swapping out plastic packaging would have knock-on environmental effects. While glass has some advantages over plastic, such as being endlessly recyclable, a one-liter glass bottle can weigh as much as 800g compared to a 40g plastic one. This results in
compared to plastic containers for milk, fruit juice, and fizzy drinks, for example. When those heavier bottles and jars need to be transported over long distances, carbon emissions grow even more. And if the vehicles they're transported in don't contain plastic, they themselves will be heavier, which means even more emissions.
In some ways, though, changing food packaging would be the easy part. You might buy milk in a glass bottle, but plastic tubing is used in the dairy industry to get that milk from cow to bottle. Even if you buy vegetables loose, sheets of plastic mulch may have helped the farmer who grew them save water and keep away weeds. Without plastic, industrial agriculture as we know it would be impossible.
If we ditch synthetic clothing materials, cotton production would have to be scaled up significantly (Credit: Getty Images)
Living without plastic would also require a shift in how we dress. In 2018, 62% of the textile fibers produced worldwide were synthetic, made from petrochemicals. While cotton and other natural fibers like hemp would be good substitutes for some of our clothing, scaling up production to match current demand would come with a cost. Cotton already grows on 2.5% of arable land worldwide, but the crop accounts for 16% of insecticide use, risking the health of farmers and contaminating water supplies. Without plastic, we'd need to ditch fast fashion in favour of more durable items we can wear again and again.
There would be upsides to a world without plastic, though: we'd escape the harmful effects it has on our health.
Turning oil and gas into plastic releases toxic gases that pollute the air and impact local communities. What're more, chemicals added during the production of plastics can disrupt the endocrine system, which produces hormones that regulate our growth and development. Two of the most well-studied of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are phthalates, used to soften plastic but also found in many cosmetics, and bisphenol A (BPA), used to harden plastic and commonly used in the lining of tins.
"While these phthalates or BPA are important for the structure of the plastic, they are not chemically bound to it," says Shanna Swan, professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. That means when these chemicals are used in food packaging, they can leach into the food itself – and end up in our bodies.
Exposure to EDCs during critical periods of fetalgrowth can have long-lasting effects. "If the mother is pregnant, and she is exposed to plastics or other chemicals that alter the development of her fetus, those changes are lifelong, irreversible changes," says Swan. This means that, while going cold turkey on plastics would reduce our exposure, their effects would still be felt for at least the next two generations. "Your grandmother's exposure is relevant to your reproductive health and your health in general," says Swan.
Plastics have been found in Antarctic sea ice and in the guts of animals living in the deep ocean (Credit: Getty Images)
At some point, we'd want to address the plastic that's already in the oceans. Could we ever clean it all up? "You have some materials that are on the seafloor and they're not going to go anywhere, they're just part of the ecosystem," says Chelsea Rochman, assistant professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto. But with the floating plastics, she says, we have a fighting chance.
Taking out bigger pieces of plastic waste would also stop them from breaking up into microplastics. Most of the microplastics found away from coastlines are from the 1990s or earlier, suggesting that bigger pieces take decades to break down. That means if we simply stopped adding new plastic pollution to the oceans tomorrow, microplastics would continue to increase over the next decades – but by removing the existing debris as well, we could stop that surge. "Maybe we reach a time where every animal we pull out of the water doesn't have microplastics in it," says Rochman.
Maybe we reach a time where every animal we pull out of the water doesn't have microplastics in it – Chelsea Rochman
In a plastic-free world, making new kinds of plastic out of plants might start to look tempting.Bio-based plastics that have many of the same qualities as petrochemical plastics are already in use. Corn starch-based polylactic acid (PLA), for example, is used to make straws that are almost indistinguishable from their fossil fuel plastic counterparts – unlike paper straws that can end up soggy before you finish your drink. Bio-based plastics can be made from the edible parts of plants like sugar or corn, or from plant material that isn't fit for consumption, like bagasse, the pulp left over after crushing sugarcane. Some, but not all, bio-based plastics are biodegradable or compostable. But most of those plastics still need careful processing, often in industrial composting facilities, to ensure they don't persist in the environment – we can't just throw them into the sea and hope for the best.
Even if we did create the infrastructure to compost them, bio-based plastics might not be better for the environment – at least not right away. "I think initially we'd see all impacts increase," says Stuart Walker, a research fellow at the University of Exeter and author of a recent review looking at environmental impacts of bio-based and fossil fuel plastics.
Supermarket supply chains are optimised for selling packaged produce and would need overhauling if we stopped using plastic (Credit: Getty Images)
But trying to compare the environmental impacts of bioplastics with conventional ones is tricky, not least because fossil fuel-based plastics have a head start. "We've been making these things for so long at such scale that we're really good at it," says Walker. "In the time it would shift and we'd see that with bioplastics, the emissions would reduce." As countries around the world decarbonize their electricity supplies, the carbon emissions from producing bio-based plastics would decrease further.
However, making plastic from plants wouldn't necessarily solve health problems stemming from the material. While research on the topic is scarce, it's likely that similar additives to those used in conventional plastics would also be used in bio-based alternatives, Iacovidou says. This is because the properties the materials need are the same. "The fate of the additives is what concerns me the most," she says. If bio-based plastics are mixed with food waste and composted, whatever is in the plastic enters our food system.
It's clear that replacing one material with another won't solve all our plastic problems.
There's already a push to figure out which plastics are unnecessary, avoidable, and problematic, with several countries, including the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands region, aiming tophase these out. To go even further than that, we could decide to only use plastics that we really, truly need. In a recent book chapter, George describes a framework to help us figure out which plastics are vital. By considering whether the item fulfills an essential need – such as food, shelter, or medicine – and also whether reducing the amount of material or replacing the plastic with something else, would affect its use, we can start to see which plastics we can and cannot live without.
But these essential plastics are context-specific and not set in stone. In some places, the only safe drinking water comes in plastic, for example. "That means we need to develop drinking water infrastructure there so that we don't have to rely on packaged water, but right now that [plastic] is necessary," says Jenna Jambeck, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia.
Thinking through the whole life cycle of any new materials, including what we do with them when they no longer serve their purpose, would be essential. "We’ve kind of forgotten that recycling isn't the gold standard of what we can do with stuff when we’re finished with it," says Walker.
Along with colleagues at the University of Sheffield, he investigated the environmental impacts of disposable and reusable takeaway containers. They found that a durable plastic container would only need to be used between two and three times to be better, in terms of climate impact, than a single-use polypropylene one, even taking into account washing. Stainless steel containers reached the same break-even point after 13 uses – takeaways, thankfully, wouldn't need to be a thing of the past in a plastic-free world.
The biggest shift we'd face, then, would be re-evaluating our throwaway culture. We'd need to change not just how we consume items – from clothes and food to washing machines and phones – but how we produce them too. "We're too quick to buy something cheap and disposable, where we ought to be making things so they are compatible, and there's more standardization, so things can be swapped out and mended," says George.
Without plastic, we might even have to change the way we talk about ourselves. "Consumer is inherently a single-use term," says Walker. In a world where packaging is reused and repurposed, not thrown out, we might become citizens instead.
Perhaps we'd also discover that for all the genuine good plastic has done, not all of the lifestyle changes it has enabled have been positive. If it's plastic packaging that allows us to grab lunch to eat on the go, and plastic-heavy devices that mean we are always contactable, without it our schedules might need to be a little less frantic. "If that was all taken away, life would slow down," says Jambeck. "Would that be such a bad thing?"