What If We Completely Stopped Using Plastic?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

I almost wrote this as part of my Quick Questions series but realized there is nothing quick about this question. I’ll say at the beginning, I’m wondering about what the title asks. I’m not interested in the odds of us going plastic-free. I’m not interested in the politics involved. I’m not interested in whether or not it would be a good thing. I’m not even interested in how it might happen. Imagine there’s a really sad and lonely Kelpian living on a plastic planet and move on. (That’s actually a really funny joke for anyone who reads this blog and also watched all of season three of Star Trek Discovery.) All I’m interested in is what the world would look like if everybody stopped using plastic completely. For me, this is the first step in deciding the answers to any of those other questions.

Some things seem pretty easy. Plastic isn’t all that old and a lot of what we use plastic for used to be done by things like glass, metal, rubber, cloth, and paper. Bags, at least in some areas, are already going back to the non-plastic alternatives. Straws too. Jars and bottles can go back to glass. Paper and cardboard can replace most packaging. Even plumbing can go back to metal. But what about all the things that were originally created as plastic? What would a video game controller with no plastic parts look like? Would it be as easy to use? Would we even have fake Christmas trees?

And what about all the things that use plastic because of plastic’s unique properties? It’s lightweight and durable. If we replaced every plastic piece in a car or plane with things less lightweight and durable, how would it affect the performance of the car or plane? There are pieces of medical equipment that need to be flexible and small. Can rubber handle that? Can we make transparent rubber? That’s another thing that makes plastic useful.

Another thing about plastic is that it’s cheap. Really, really cheap. I know it’s debated whether its price accurately reflects its cost (I don’t think it does), but the actual price of plastic is very low. What would the economic knock-on effects of no more plastic be? It seems like it would be a cause of inflation. What other disruptions would it have?

Finally, what would be impossible without plastic?

My instincts are that plastic is bad. Really, really bad. Whenever I read about microplastics, the “plastic cycle”, the great pacific garbage patch, and even just walking around and seeing plastic in my own environment, I am disturbed. I really believe we should be actively working towards a plastic-free future. But I don’t exactly know what that means, and I want to. Can anyone help?

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