Patching Environmental Wounds or Thinking About Change?

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A cura di: Almona Tani, Quentin Toffolini, Marieke Feis, Judith Kreuter

Environmental degradation is not only an object of academic study, but also a buzz topic that we encounter constantly in our everyday lives. Air pollution puts temporarily stops traffic in European cities. Images of sea gulls and turtles caught up in plastic waste circulate in the media. Innovation is considered the solution to these issues by policy-makers, e.g. in the ‘Innovation Union’ Strategy of the European Union, universities and research institutions for whom innovation has become a major driver for any kind of research activity, and for the public, which happily accepts innovative “clean” products (example: https://www.gp-award.com/). But how sustainable is innovation?

“Innovation” is a term often related to new technological objects. But is it all that simple? Each innovation raises new problems. Bioplastics, for example, are not only about packaging and waste, but also about land-use. The plant materials needed for the production of bioplastic have to grow somewhere, have to be harvested and be processed. This has the potential to aggravate existing conflicts over how to use which land, or over the allocation of ownership and manpower. It might aggravate issues of deforestation. This is not to say that bioplastic is bad – but neither is it good. We differentiate between good solutions in absolute and in relative term.

The change of perspective allows us to see not only the promises, but also the challenges of innovations. If we put them into a wider context, we realize that we have patched a wound, but that the patient is not cured yet. The innovation has allowed us to move the focus from one challenge to another.

In the case of bioplastics, the new technology has moved the focus from problematic waste to a problematic production: problematic because an extra mass production to gain starch from corn or other vegetation rises a new sustainability question in relation to the environment and how much extra farmland is needed. This means that bioplastics can be an important step towards solving environmental problems, but like any solution, bioplastic also causes new problems.

So, how sustainable is it to use bioplastic?

  • The bioplastic waste is degradable, but will there still remain dangerous elements in the environmental system from the degrading product? What is their influence in the soil and ground water?
  • Is bioplastic waste to be separated in the organic waste? The waste is still there as biodegradable. However, if we throw away the bioplastic on the street, will it degrade anyway? If yes, for how long shall we walk on the street with bioplastics as a red carpet before they degrade?
  • If we consider bioplastics as a step in a process of change that should raise our awareness of our uses of packaging and plastic in general, how ought such a silver bullet innovation make us think about change?
  • How ought it make us think about our point of view and ways of acting in our environment?
  • Should it make us reflect on our core assumptions and habits, and their potential renewal? Is it a temporary solution?

If we want to resolve them, we need to start thinking about our role in nature, and how we want to behave in the context of a degrading environment.

How, for example, would it be to live in a world without any plastic?