Greenpeace is amongst the international organisations waging war on plastic waste as a result of ocean debris, with the Scottish Government aiming to match a promised EU ban on single-use plastics by 2030.
But according to scientists from Heriot-Watt University, a lack of eco-friendly alternatives means widescale change could do more harm than good.
Citing studies that claim a sudden shift would double global energy consumption and treble greenhouse gas emissions, materials chemistry expert Professor David Bucknall, of the university’s Institute of Chemical Sciences, said: “Almost everything we touch or interact with on a daily basis is made of or contains a plastic of some description.
“Replacing plastics with alternative materials such as glass and metals would cost more to manufacture due to the energy consumed and resources – including water – required to process them.
“Furthermore, because plastics are lightweight, transportation of consumer goods in plastic packaging means fewer vehicles are required for transportation of those goods, therefore burning less fuel and greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“So whilst some people may wish for plastics to be reduced or banned altogether, we need to ensure we are replacing them with materials that are better for the planet. In many cases there is no credible alternative to using a plastic, so we need to move towards a ‘circular economy’ for plastics, rather than the largely ‘make-use-dispose’ model we currently adopt.”
Bucknall is amongst 40 Heriot-Watt academics to form a multi-disciplinary network to examine the plastics crisis.
Kate Sang, professor of gender and employment studies, says many disabled people rely on plastic, particularly single-use plastics, for their everyday lives.
She said: “Single-use plastics have transformed healthcare in this country and have become essential for delivering a safe and responsible health service.
“Single-use plastic straws, for example, are essential for many disabled and elderly people.
“Food packaging is another area where many campaigners want to see an elimination of single-use plastics, for example, grated cheese or pre-chopped onions. However, ready meals, pre-prepared vegetables and other prepared foods enable many people to eat well who otherwise may struggle to prepare meals. We need to move away from ideas that convenience is laziness, when in reality convenience means independence.
“The focus at this stage should be on working with manufacturers to develop suitable alternatives and for appropriate collection and disposal of single-use plastics so that disabled people are not further marginalised.”
Professor Ted Henry, from the Institute of Life and Earth Sciences School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure and Society, commented: “Just because plastics are visible does not mean they are the most important environmental issue we are facing.
“Doing so will lead us down a dangerous road where already scarce resources are misdirected and we end up losing out on important opportunities to make a real difference for the environment.”