- - Monday, February 10, 2020

Perhaps the greatest shared desire among adults worldwide is to extend their lifespan. And the best place to do that (after discounting for self-destructive behavior) is the United States.

Much of our longevity can be attributed to lifesaving medical advances, as well as access to clean food and water. After 200 years of progress, Americans rarely grow their own food. We don’t collect raindrops or drill wells in the backyard for drinking water. And access to miracle medical cures are commonplace.

What do advances in access to clean food, water and quality health care have in common? Plastic wraps and containers. But today there is a new cri de coeur against “single use plastics.” For some environmentalists, the product is “Enemy Number 1.”

Consumers are accustomed to having a wide variety of food choices that are geographically impossible to produce in a single community. According to the Food Marketing Institute, the average supermarket in the United States offers 33,000 items on store shelves. Obviously, most of that food is not grown locally. Cue the need for disposable plastic.

Access to clean water similarly depends on plastic. Although some only consider disposable plastic water bottles to be useful when traveling or going on a hike, the products are lifesaving in many areas of the country where drinking water has been compromised. Do horror stories out of Flint, Michigan, or Newark, New Jersey, ring a bell? They are only the tip of the problem. 

The Environmental Protection Agency regularly finds hundreds of municipal water systems that have excessive lead, fecal material and chemical contaminants that were not filtered out before reaching the tap. Notices of these failures are generally not published. To address the danger, the federal government has 18 million bottles of purified water stored around the country for residents and relief workers where necessary. 

It’s the same in health care. Single-use plastics help prevent the spread of infection and disease. When products like surgical gloves, IV tubes and syringes are made of disposable plastics, concerns around sterilization largely disappear.

It’s evident plastics play an essential role in keeping Americans safe and healthy. However, this column is not a defense of every current plastic application. In fact, we need to find better ways to mitigate the amount of plastic that is either not of a quality to be recycled or can be easily substituted with functional material. To borrow an Orwellian concept, all plastics may be equal, but some are more equal than others.

While we could develop several ranking systems to judge single-use plastic products — considering need versus convenience, recycling ease and available substitutes — a more straightforward benchmark exists: The ability to extend life. Plastic straws fail the test. Black plastic sushi trays that can’t be recycled don’t make it either. Baked goods could be put in paper, instead of plastic without significant consequence.

Consider a plastic version of the Department of Agriculture food pyramid. At the top are those plastics that are linked to health and safety needs — including packaging for perishable foods that easily promote bacteria, purified water and medical supplies. Second tier are those plastics which can be substituted. Eating cutlery or wraps for foods that don’t easily spoil are good examples. Remember paper cups? They can often replace plastic.

The bottom tier of the pyramid includes low-value resins that are commonly found in unnecessary packaging. Perhaps the most familiar example are the billions of Amazon Prime shipments that crisscross the country every year.  

Admittedly, there are tradeoffs for some of these shifts that have their own consequences. Use paper to replace bubble wraps or wood forks to replace plastic and we will need to cut down more trees. Using aluminum cans or glass to replace plastic soda bottles is akin to chasing your tail. Those materials still need to be recycled and the production process of these alternatives can have a larger environmental footprint. We could ask more people to use their own refillable water container but know that the water often fails safe-water standards with a disproportionate threat to infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

As with most major societal problems there are no easy answers. But there is always a place to start. The need for more recycling containers and capacity is a priority, as well as strategies to encourage personal responsibility. What we don’t need is an environment where we are plastic free but have compromised American health and safety.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.

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