25th October 2018 Loose bananas in supermarket

Plastic – the good, the bad and the ugly

Plastic is the new bête-noire of today’s environmental movement. We have seen heart-breaking scenes of pollution and real damage caused by single use plastic in the environment in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 programme and excellent campaigning work by others.

BBC’s Blue Planet 2 showed us the incredible beauty and diversity of life in our seas. It also showed us the effects plastic pollution finding its way into the oceans and harming life.

In the UK, the public understands the problem. The 5p plastic bag levy introduced in 2015 resulted in a dramatic 83% reduction in the single use plastic bags showing a real appetite for change (Plastic bag charge: 5p levy could be extended in England).

There’s also a general buzz around reducing the use of plastic with supermarkets seriously considering plastic free aisles after the world’s first plastic-free aisle was launched in Amsterdam by environmental campaign group A Plastic Planet and Dutch supermarket Ekoplaza (First plastic-free aisle is an example for other supermarkets to follow).

Loose bananas in supermarket

There are good reasons why plastic is so commonly used and why it is such a problem. On the one hand it is a sturdy material, easily manufactured and cheap to produce. On the other hand, single use packaging items often end up polluting the environment because recycling is not possible or uneconomic.

It’s worth exploring the positives and negatives of plastic and how we can reduce its usage.

Plastic – the good

It’s not a fashionable view but plastic plays an important role in modern life — from keeping food fresh and preventing wastage, to providing hygienic medical products.

The use of plastic film extends the shelf-life of products and protects food. It helps the following:

  • Protects vulnerable products from damage whilst in transit and from contamination or damage by moisture, humidity, gases, microorganisms, insects and light.
  • Preserves products for longer, which reduces waste by giving people more time to use or consume them before it is no longer suitable to do so.
  • Prevents waste by keeping a product together and avoiding spillages.
  • Allows transport over great distances, so that we have access to a wide variety of non-local produce that, in turn, encourages trade.
  • Saves space through stacking objects which make transporting more efficient.
  • Displays important information about the product, such as nutritional content or allergy advice, which makes selling easier.

Also plastic is light and durable material. Substitute it for paper or metal and you may end up using more energy and creating more waste and environmental damage in the long-term.

The main problem is that most plastic isn’t recycled easily and simple thrown away where it persists in the environment and causes so many problems.

See this article for more information: Why do we need plastic packaging?

Plastic meat packaging

The UK’s plastic recycling rate is officially 44% but recent research casts doubt on these figures and maybe 10% lower – UK overestimating plastic packaging recycling rates

99% of local authorities are now collecting plastic bottles at the kerbside and 76% collect pots, tubs and trays. This is enabling increasing annual tonnages of post-consumer plastic packaging waste to be collected and provides an input raw material into the recycling sector.

Some may take comfort from these figures but it still means that only about one third of plastic packaging is recycled – Only a third of UK consumer plastic waste is recycled

Plastic – the bad and the ugly

With two-thirds of plastic packaging being sent to landfill or incinerated, there is still a lot of work to be done and room for improvement.

It’s some of the properties that make plastic such a useful packaging material such as durability and manufacturability that make it so widely used and difficult to recycle.

Plastic pollution

It is very obvious in plastic water bottles, plastic food containers but did you know that plastic is used in single use disposable coffee cupstea bags and even chewing gum (http://justoneocean.org/chewing-gum)?

Many of those types of uses make it hard to separate and then recycle which means it ends up landfill, the oceans or the environment.

Here’s why the irresponsible use of plastic is a problem:

  • Plastic is made from the finite resource of oil and has an impact on climate change.
  • Plastic pollution does not respect borders so requires international agreements to resolve.
  • Plastic waste is ingested by or entangles sea life causing death and injury.
  • Plastic has the ability to carry pathogenic microbes across the ocean, potentially impacting life as it travels.
  • Plastic can also concentrate and attract water-borne organic pollutants which can be ingested by sea-life.
  • Single-use but durable plastic packaging is a waste of resource as it has to be recycled, landfilled or incinerated.

See this article for more information: The plastic problem

What you can do

We all have a role to play by changing our lifestyles and being more aware of how we can make a difference:

  • Buy vegetables loose, particularly items with their own natural packaging such as bananas, coconuts or oranges.
  • Don’t buy any product with excessive packaging and write to the manufacturer.
  • Take a refillable cup for hot drinks while travelling (Costa Coffee, Starbucks and now Pret all offer discounts) to avoid single-use coffee cups.
  • Use loose-leaf tea instead of tea-bags.
  • Avoid the use of plastic straws.
  • Seek out other low plastic products.
  • Ditch the single-use plastic water bottles – use refillable bottles or water fountains.

These types of personal actions can have a big impact and bring pressure to bear on polluting producers and supermarkets. Always go back to the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle and repair.

4 r's of sustainability

While plastic pollution is a serious issue, it is more easily solved than some of other great environmental problems facing us such as climate change and air pollution. I’m optimistic, given the success of the plastic bag levy in the UK, that swift action can be taken.

Further reading

The unknowns of plastic pollution

The Guardian on plastic

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