Chris Rose ‘You may have noticed that despite various ‘bans’ on plastic bags there are quite a lot of media and social media stories in which plastic is compared with alternative materials and plastic is found to be ‘greener’, for example plastic bags compared to cotton bags, or plastic compared to glass or steel bottles.

LCA, Life Cycle Analysis or Assessment, is supposed to be an objective way to compare the environmental footprint of products, and is a mainstay of corporate decision-making in sustainability.  But it’s blind to plastic pollution, leaving it available to be mis-used in comparisons of plastic with other materials.  LCA-based comparisons of plastic bags with other bags for example have been widely cited and give a misleading impression that plastic is ‘greener’, while not assessing plastic as a pollutant at all.

Characterisation of plastic pollution is complex and a relatively new topic but recent work from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute may enable development of a standard measure of plastic as a persistent and potentially bioaccumulative pollutant.  Meanwhile, campaigners, journalists and environmentalists, as well as scientists who may be commissioned to carry out LCA studies, should be alert to the risk of ‘greenwashing’ plastic through conventional LCAs.  The initial wave of concern heightened by Blue Planet II has subsided but the plastics industry’s fight to rehabilitate itself continues, and with essential uses for PPE at the forefront of covid responses and rock-bottom prices for oil, virgin plastic is cheap and the recycling market has collapsed in many places.  The flood of plastic pollution shows little sign of abating anytime soon.

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