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Plastic and the planet
Greg Doering
Greg Doering

I couldn’t help but think of the Folger’s coffee cans around my grandparent’s house when I saw “Planet vs. Plastics,” the slogan for Earth Day this year. There was always a can in the kitchen near the percolator ready to brew a fresh pot. Once emptied, the cans were repurposed in the basement, garage and barn for a whole host of other purposes, ranging from simple storage to cleaning paint brushes. On the Fourth of July, my cousins and I would scrounge up a can that hadn’t found a use yet and proceed to use firecrackers to launch it like a missile.

Most of those cans still serve a purpose, holding an assortment of washers in the garage or fence clips in the barn, but long ago Folger’s ditched the cans for plastic containers. The stated goal at the time was to provide fresher ground coffee, but I also imagine there was some cost savings as well. Either way, the utility of an empty container didn’t change much. But I doubt we’d have much success using fireworks with the modern version.

Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970 to remind people about the importance of environmental conservation and sustainability to create a healthier planet and brighter future for mankind. In 2024 this apparently means taking aim at plastics, with a “commitment to end plastics for the sake of human and planetary health.” To be fair, it further elaborates the goal is to merely achieve a 60 percent reduction in the production of all plastics by 2040.

I’m all for conservation and sustainability, and I can support efforts to reduce plastic pollution, but doing away or significantly reducing plastics in all forms is likely to create worse outcomes for humans and the planet. A ban is like using a machete instead of a scalpel.

The prevalence of plastics in our lives is because they offer convenience, durability and affordability. Food waste would be significantly higher without the preserving power of plastic. Glass and steel containers often require more resources to produce, and both are heavier and require more energy to transport. Sterile plastic packaging saves lives in medical settings every day.

There’s often a lack of nuance when people talk about plastic, and that includes so-called single-use varieties like bags from the grocery store, water bottles or margarine containers. Yet, like the Folger’s container, those items often serve multiple purposes after their initial use. From lining wastebaskets to holding leftovers, plastic can remain productive for a long time.

Plastic is valuable because it can be molded to any shape and be impact resistant and waterproof. The nontoxic material doesn’t decay or corrode. Plastic’s main attribute – durability – is also its biggest curse. It’s a miracle of modern chemistry that has no natural mechanism to break down in the environment.

The solution isn’t to end the use of plastic and all its invaluable contributions to humans and the planet on Earth Day, rather it’s to better understand the responsibility that comes with having a fresh cup of coffee, a bottle of water on the go or picking up groceries at the store.

We should embrace the virtues of plastic and work to better manage its side effects. The problem is pollution, not plastic. It will take a little creativity, but I’m positive we can reap the rewards of plastic and make Earth a better place to live for us and all the other living creatures who call our planet home.

“Insight” is a weekly column published by Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization whose mission is to strengthen agriculture and the lives of Kansans through advocacy, education and service. Greg Doering is the media manager at Kansas Farm Bureau.