When it comes to the environment, the economy, and public health, everything is connected to everything else. As momentum builds to commercialize bio-based alternatives to petro-plastics this interconnection is essential to keep in mind. By protecting nature, we protect ourselves.
Indeed, as every region of Earth struggles with a global pandemic, mega-droughts, devastating floods and monstrous wildfires, the interdependence of these regional and planetary catastrophes and human health was recently affirmed in a report published by the Harvard Global Health Institute’s Scientific Task Force on Preventing Pandemics. The report’s key findings confirm that ecologically ignorant mismanagement of our planet’s species, landscapes, and natural resources was a root cause of the Covid pandemic, especially the destruction of forests, the irresponsible expansion of agricultural lands, and heinous animal hunting and consumption. The Harvard report noted that helpful environmental activities such as forest conservation and sustainable agriculture affords many human health and planetary benefits, including carbon sequestration and a reduced likelihood that infectious diseases will spread to humans. Both benefits are obviously more important than ever. Unfortunately, government policies and private sector investments into forestry protection and regenerative agriculture is irresponsibly small. As a consequence, we should expect new infectious viruses to spread in the future unless government and business priorities change.
Zoonotic transmission of viruses and climate-worsening heat, drought, and wildfires are wreaking havoc on human health and the world’s forests and agricultural lands, even as worsening deforestation and mismanagement of agricultural land themselves contribute to the spread of infectious diseases, climate disruption, and biodiversity loss. Recognizing the interdependent circularity of these ecologically damaging relationships underscores the urgency of supply chain transparency when it comes to evaluating the ecological value of any bio-based alternative to petro-based plastics, whether the petro-plastic alternative originates from a forest or a farm.
Because more than 99 percent of plastics are made from fossil fuels, the greenhouse gas emissions from the petro-plastic lifecycle threaten humanity’s ability to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C, a critical objective of the UN’s 2015 Paris Agreement and the recent COP26 climate conference held in Glasgow. Bio-based raw materials are the only raw materials viable to serve as alternatives to fossil-fuel based plastics. No other raw material alternative options currently exist. However, not all bio-based alternatives to petro-plastics are of equal ecological value: Forest and farm management can be regenerative and protective of habitat and species, or incredibly destructive. Indeed, destructive deforestation often occurs precisely to make way for destructive agriculture. As the New York Times recently reported, about 80 percent of the trees razed each year in the tropics are cleared to raise cattle or grow the raw materials for chocolate, cereal, leather seats and thousands of other products. All vendors of any bioplastic alternative to petro-plastics must be able to credibly certify that their product avoids contributing to deforestation and unsustainable agriculture.
As businesses and consumers increasingly shift away from petro-based plastics, a global industrial battle is emerging among bioplastics innovators in the forestry and agricultural sectors, each seeking to capture a major share of the growing bio-based market poised to reduce the plastics industry’s reliance on fossil fuels. Products designed to reduce reliance on petro-based plastics must transparently document that any alternative reduces climate-related impacts and promotes authentic ecological benefits. Promoting a reduction in single-use petro-plastics, an important objective, cannot mean that all bio-based alternatives are ecological winners, whether the alternative originates from a forest or a farm.
Global mobilization to reduce the spread of Covid confirmed that personal behavior is more likely to change when people sense a direct impact on their health and well-being: global changes in personal behavior and government policies in response to the Covid’s threat to personal health were rapid and virtually everywhere — in homes, in schools, in offices, at virtually every theater and sporting event. By contrast, the global mobilization needed to address the plastics industry’s contribution to climate change is miniscule, despite the impacts and threats that industry poses to human health and well-being.
Government policies and business leaders have been profoundly irresponsible when it comes to respecting the fact that nature is the ultimate source of all economic value. Neither commerce or culture is possible without clean air to breathe, a chemically stable atmosphere, clean water, fertile topsoil, pollinators, raw materials for food, fuel, fiber and medicine, and the natural processing of wastes by the millions of micro-species inhabiting our soil, water and air. These irreplaceable, nature-based ecosystem services support all human activities and human life itself. Accordingly, innovators developing bioplastic alternatives to petro-plastics must devote the same level of attention and effort towards keeping the Earth’s ecosystem services and wells of natural capital as safe and functional as they devote to safeguarding more traditional forms of business capital.
While vaccines are indisputably essential for individuals to protect themselves and their communities, we now know that vaccination alone is not enough to control the pandemic or protect human health more broadly. Highly vaccinated communities can still be vulnerable due to the pandemic’s extreme transmissibility, and even fully vaccinated communities are vulnerable to the risks posed by climate change. The petro-plastics industry’s decades of mistreatment of the planet and the human health and ecological disasters that continue to result from that mistreatment makes it more critical than ever for those promoting biobased options to measure their impacts and document their respect for the ecological truism that “Everything is connected to everything else.”
Allen Hershkowitz PhD
Allen Hershkowitz PhD was a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council from 1988 to 2016 and is the Founding Director and Chairman of Sport and Sustainability International. He serves as the Environmental Science Advisor to numerous sports leagues and teams.
Earlier Postings in this Column
- 1 Nov 2021 – If Plastic is The New Coal, Are Bio-Based Options Better?
- 4 Oct 2021 – To Solve The Plastics Pollution Crisis, We Must Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – and Replace
Photographer J. Henry Fair
The opinions expressed here by Allen Hershkowitz and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.