A recently published report found that in the just six months since England stopped handing out plastic bags for free in England (and instead charged five pence, equal to approximately seven US cents per bag), the number of bags handed out has gone from 7.6 billion in 2014, to just 600 million single-use plastic bags handed out by England’s seven largest supermarkets. That is a reduction of almost six billion in six months. Similarly, France has banned plastic cutlery and plates, becoming the first country in the world to do so.

Together, these two events are not enough to make a dent in the worldwide demand for plastics, especially with the rise of e-commerce in China. Yet, while it may not be the end of plastic consumption, it might instead be the beginning of a paradigm shift in our consumption of plastics, and a greater awareness of their actual necessity.

In the sustainable transport field, the push to reduce energy use is often framed around the so-called “Avoid-Shift-Improve” approach, referring to avoiding unnecessary travel where possible through for example integrated land-use planning, shifting to more efficient modes of transport such as from cars to buses, and improving the efficiency of remaining vehicles. This approach might well be used for other sectors such as plastic consumption -- and here in particular -- avoiding unnecessary use where possible.

Agriculture is one of several sectors heavily reliant on the use of plastics. Credit: Stockbyte

There is no denying that plastics are a boon and convenience of the modern era, but their end of life is usually as a disintegrated fragment digested by animals (or perhaps you) at some point along a food chain. Such an unappetizing prospect has turned some off plastic who are looking for solutions to reduce the use of plastic where possible; some through small fees and charges, some through substitution, and others by out-right banning plastic.

Plastics do not tend to be biodegradable, but often we use them for no other reason than that they are being offered for free. The consequences of which are becoming increasingly visible, most famously seen in the “great pacific garbage patch”, which is growing in size. In fact, according to one report, we are on our way to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

If you ask the plastics industry, they will extol all the virtues of plastics, and point out that they “only” account for four percent of fossil fuel usage. Others put the figure at closer to eight percent. Meanwhile, in the US, plastics are generally not produced from oil, but rather as a by-product from natural gas production.

However, this misses a bigger point: plastic is in some ways like oil, a derived demand. In other words, we do not need oil itself per se, but we certainly enjoy the services oil and natural gas and plastics enable.

The service of plastics coating medical equipment is arguably a bit more necessary than handing out a plastic bag and straw every time you sell a plastic bottle of water (looking at you, 7-11 stores in Thailand). People want water, the plastic just makes it a little easier to transport and drink, but do we really need the level of plastic we are using to date? The experiences from England suggest no.

We can still enjoy the same comforts of life, but with less use of plastic bags. And with increasing dumping of plastics into the ocean and landfills, with multifarious and deleterious effects, maybe it is time to re-examine how intrinsic our need is for plastic, and whether or not it can be substituted by something biodegradable, or something as low-tech as a cloth bag.