Should we save the dolphins or the polar bears?

Stakeholders should be mindful of reactionary packaging legislation that reduces marine litter but simultaneously increases global warming. Instead, we need a multidisciplinary approach that develops sustainable plastics whilst improving the recycling infrastructure. Only this way can we save both creatures.

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All sides of the debate recognise that over-use, under-recycling and poor management of waste has led to plastics entering the marine environment across the globe. Although only a tiny proportion of marine litter derives from the UK, highlighting this global issue has introduced an important debate. If we move away from plastics, are the alternatives any better?

We can compare plastic with readily available alternative materials - paper and cardboard. Although universally recyclable (when not coated), they present different issues. A paper bag consumes 25 times more water and up to four times more energy during its manufacturing process. In addition, paper and cardboard are considerably more bulky than plastic bags, resulting in higher fuel consumption per unit during transit. Paper and cardboard alternatives to plastic packaging do not share the same clever barrier properties, such as extending food shelf life which ultimately reduces food waste and energy consumption. On balance, a direct switch from plastic to paper packaging could result in radical increases in carbon dioxide emissions, increasing earth's temperature and having devastating effects on the ice caps, spelling disaster for polar bears.

The unsustainable poor disposal of plastic could equally spell disaster for dolphins. But, if we reduce the use of plastics and replace them with inferior solutions, we risk saving neither species. Before we abandon plastics for inferior substitutes, we need to rebalance the debate, understand the environmental benefits of some plastics over other materials, and focus investment in material innovation and recycling technologies. Only this way, will we have the chance to reduce both global warming and environmental contamination.