The Ebb and Flow of Plastic Waste

 

Video: Independent Newspaper/Caroline Power Photography

The PM this week announced a 25 year plan for the UK to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042¹. Plastic waste such as the carrier bags, food packaging and disposable plastic straws that litter the country and pollute the seas would be abolished. Much was made of supermarkets stocking plastic-free aisles (and interviews with retailers complaining about damaged food and odours; the primary functions of the plastic trays and coatings).

“In the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls.” – Theresa May

Can we really be prepared to wait 25 years for legislation and compulsory action? The shocking video from The Independent (see above), BBC’s Blue Planet II and environmental studies featured elsewhere illustrate a vast sea of plastic pollution but what about the hidden plastics buried in land fill sites? A manufacturer on Radio 4’s Today programme was challenged on his production of single-use plastic; his response was “We’ve tried to make biodegradable products. They don’t look as good and they’re expensive.”

So it is a consumer and economics issue? Do we really need to pay more or are we bothered by blue rather than black plastic trays protecting our giant Italian pears? If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building (source: National Geographic²).

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cc Ben Kerckx

You may be interested in the attempt by my family and I to live plastic-lite for a month (read about it here). We attempted the plastic challenge (encouraged by the Marine Conservation Society #plasticchallenge) for the whole month buying only packaged goods in HDPE, PP or some PET plastic that my local curb-side recycling will take! Our five supermarket shops during the month took place at different stores and we pledged not to buy rather than compromise from the very start. The rationale is that consumers can insist on packaging that is widely recycled, then big corporations can be forced to adapt to our (and our planet’s) needs. You may be interested in trying something similar, so here is my advice…

Product Alternative Source
Multiple use shopping bags Jute shoppers Unicef – includes funding for 2 measles vaccinations for children per bag
Plastic for loose vegetables Paper bags Amazon – various sizes about 40p each
Plastic toothbrush Bamboo toothbrush Ethical superstore UK – eg. medium bamboo
Single-use water bottle Washable/reusable multi-use bottle Three value 1L Tritan bottles from Amazon
Toilet rolls/packaging Recycled paper and compatible plastic packaging (no, not reusable paper!) This was difficult to source but Suma produce this which can be acquired through Amazon
Storage for berries, meats and cheeses Glass, metal and other jars and boxes Often jars/metal storage comes with a plastic lid which you would take to loose produce sections, deli counters or traditional butchers. These have a BPA free lid and use a small amount of plastic but are reusable and washable.

Greenpeace’s solutions for plastic packaging:

  1. Prioritise reusable packaging and develop systems based on reuse
  2. Make sure packaging is 100 percent recycled, as well as recyclable or compostable
  3. Share information about the plastic they use, reuse and recycle, so progress can be measured
  4. Support bottle deposit return schemes, where a small deposit is added to the cost of packaged drinks, which can be reclaimed when the container is returned.

This problem isn’t simply going to disappear. We cannot wait 25 years for legislation to force retailers and manufacturers as change is only one decision away.


Further reading

¹The Independent – Theresa May vows to eliminate UK’s plastic waste by 2042, 10th January 2018

²National Geographic – 91% of Plastic Isn’t Recycled, 19th July, 2017

BBC News – UK faces build-up of plastic waste, 1st January 2018

BBC News – What are supermarkets doing to fight plastic? 14th January 2018

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A month of plastic-lite living

In June the Marine Conservation Society encouraged us to take up a “plastic challenge”, asking us to give up single-use plastic for a day, a week or even the whole month. See their website here. This blog post explores the challenge a little further with some solutions to the issues that arose.

My family and I attempted the plastic challenge for the whole month buying only packaged goods in HDPE, PP or some PET plastic that my local curb-side recycling will take! Our five supermarket shops during the month took place at different stores and we pledged not to buy rather than compromise from the very start. The rationale is that consumers can insist on packaging that is widely recycled, then big corporations can be forced to adapt to our (and our planet’s) needs. In addition, in preparation is the end of May, we replaced our plastic shopping bags with jute (natural materials) and our own paper grocery bags for loose items.

Why cut down on plastic?

Plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats facing our oceans. Up to 12 million tonnes of plastic is entering the oceans every year. This is affecting sea life – one in 3 turtles and 90% of seabirds are now estimated to have ingested plastic. Plastic is even ending up in the seafood on your plates. Coca-Cola produces an estimated 100 billion throwaway plastic bottles every year – and billions of these will end up on beaches, in landfill and in the sea. Send Coca-Cola’s CEO an email here.

A single plastic bottle takes hundreds of years to break down in the ocean, which is dangerous to wildlife. It could be swallowed by a whale or a shark, while its bottle top might be picked up by a seabird who then feeds it to its young. If it’s not swallowed whole, the bottle will break into smaller and smaller pieces, which can then can be ingested by creatures ranging from zooplankton to whales, which mistake it for food. Slowly but surely it will turn the ocean into a kind of toxic plastic soup. — Greenpeace Connect, Summer 2017

#plasticchallenge

The five supermarkets we went to during June were: Asda, Lidl, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. All are guilty of over-packaging; presumably for the convenience of warehouse storage prior to shelf display. We bought loose vegetables and placed into our own paper grocery bags; every time we went to checkout we got quizzical looks but we were keen to explain the plastic challenge and every time we were commended by the staff who said they would pass on to managers and what a great idea. Any processed, packaged food was scrutinised for the materials logo:

recycle-logos-1So we felt that by getting some items (ready-meal curries for example) in a PP tray would be ok as the curb-side collection take this plastic. As we soon found, on collection day all of the PP plastic was left behind in our front garden (even stuff previously taken).

Although this was a bit of a set-back, it was an even more tricky shop when trying to avoid food items we would normally buy not available in a recyclable form. Such as Alpro yoghurts. Tweeting about it directly to Alpro was very satisfying:

Alpro were very positive, they may even have something in development for June 2018! We did have trouble finding toilet rolls in paper packaging, all the supermarkets we went to use a plastic film that is not recyclable. We even had a look at other supermarkets in the area in case they had something; Tesco, Aldi and the Co-op. Nothing. This was our first compromise; day 12 of the challenge and we had little choice as we were totally out of supplies!

This was a great response on Twitter:

So we will certainly be prepared next June! We found Morrisons the best for frozen food packaging (cardboard boxes rather than sleeves with plastic/film lid inside). Lidl was the only one to supply brown paper grocery bags for bread (even though plastic supplied for loose veggies). Only the Co-op sell recycled toilet paper; and this is in a plastic package. This is shocking. All of the supermarkets need to be a bit more plastic-conscious; people always agree and usually have a positive comment about the habitat of wildlife so it is really should be  a case of ‘the customer is always right’. If a supermarket wants to be the first to put environment as priority they need to take adapt Greenpeace’s solutions for plastic packaging:

  1. Prioritise reusable packaging and develop systems based on reuse
  2. Make sure packaging is 100 percent recycled, as well as recyclable or compostable
  3. Share information about the plastic they use, reuse and recycle, so progress can be measured
  4. Support bottle deposit return schemes, where a small deposit is added to the cost of packaged drinks, which can be reclaimed when the container is returned.

Further: Get involved

Try the #plasticchallenge next June and support the Marine Conservation Society’s efforts – information here.

Greenpeace is leading the way in a campaigning against plastic waste; targeting one of the worst global offenders: Coca-cola. Sign their petition to affect change at Coke here or donate for their plastic appeal here.

Advice from EatDrinkBetter on reducing food packaging here (image at top credited to this website).