The great plastic debate
Is banning plastic the answer to our environmental issues
This is a bit of a different post than normal but one I hope will help you understand the maze of issues regarding the current debate on plastics.
The focus is primarily on plastic packaging though plastic is used for many things in our world and has saved the lives of millions of people. Equally we use plastic for things that really aren't needed, ornaments for the garden are a particular pet hate of mine!
And this is the problem - I speak to people going plastic free, removing their packaging at the tills, packaging that is designed to extend shelf life and protect the food from damage, to reduce the millions of tonnes of food waste produced in the western world. Yet as I'm speaking to them they're buying a plastic ornament for the garden or tapping into their plastic mobile phone. When I challenge people they don't even realise what they are doing ,but will often say " oh I don't mean that plastic"
It reminds me of the whole Brexit debate on immigration. When I've asked friends and relatives about there issues with the "immigrants" and I pointed out their neighbours, the medical staff who just saved their life, the workers in their factory or the people who rent their houses, the response was "no not those immigrants, the ones in the paper or on the news or social media".
The same is now happening with plastic.
Now don't get me wrong, I have a degree in Environmental Biology and I'm very passionate about all thing to do with protecting our natural world, I agree plastic in nature is an issue and it's an oil based product with lots of questions around it's manufacture. But so are all the other materials;
I could write a book on this but I'll try and keep it brief and only focus on packaging;
Plastic packaging is in certain circumstances the best packaging and has the lowest carbon impact than other materials.
According to the recent article in New Scientist Magazine - Climate Change and loss of habitats and biodiversity are the biggest threats to our planet. However I know of a number of international meetings where both these topics have been taken off the agenda to focus on plastic. These knee jerk reactions are going to cause a bigger long term issue and legacy to our planet and future generations and I really want everyone to stop and actually look at this and remove the emotion.
So first we need to consider how we've got here.
As we've moved away from the land, with the industrial revolution into factories and large habitations we've had to find a way to get food to these people. Packaging isn't a new thing - we now use our waste from the past to determine our history. How many archaeological digs are around the "middens" or landfill sites of the past.
In the past that is how we dealt with waste, we dug a hole in the ground, we burnt it on the fire and we threw it into lakes, stream, rivers and the sea. My dad is 72 years old and he remembers that they used to throw the glass bottles and metal cans in the stream. There were no waste collections in those days.
Even in my childhood, when I visited my relatives in the West Midlands, people dumped waste on the green, the rag and bone man would take anything of value (with his horse and cart, I am only 44 honest), and the rest was dumped in the canal. A lot of waste went into our environment when we had the bin strikes in the 70's.
We have to remember a lot of countries still operate like this. Which is why the majority of ocean plastic come from countries like India, China etc.
Plastic became the leading material of choice in the 1970's and has increased since then. However a lot of work has been done to reduce plastic packaging already. Having worked in the packaging industry for over 18 years I've never worked for any brand or retailer who wants to pay for packaging, my focus has always been on reducing packaging - mainly for cost reasons.
When I worked at WRAP (The Waste Resource Action Programme), we used this as our driver to get reductions i.e. it saves money.
Equally when I was at WRAP we did on occasions increase packaging. This was to reduce product damage. In most cases there is more embedded carbon, water and other resources used in the growing, manufacture and processing of the product than there is in the packaging. We have to put things in perspective.
I see many people saying we should return to shopping locally and go back to the old ways. We can't, we have to look at a new way of doing things not look to the past, though we can take learning. We have to remember the population of the world was much smaller, women predominately stayed at home with the children and were able to go out and buy fresh products every day from the local baker, butcher, greengrocer, etc. And we all had more time to grow our produce even our own pigs for slaughter in our back yards. Now hygiene, animal welfare, legislation, lack of space and time prevents much of this from happening.
We want convenience, we want choice and we need things to be easy for us.
Those of you reading this article are people who care, who will want to make these changes but many don't want to. Yes, survey them in the street and they'll say they recycle, they don't want plastic and they want animal welfare. They'll say they'll pay more for these things, but in reality they walk into the shop and purchase the cheapest thing. Brands and retailers should take the hit, they make massive profits, I hear you say. In reality they exist only to make a profit, to give people jobs and salaries and to pay their shareholders.
I saw a comment today in one of the packaging groups I'm in saying that retailers should stop selling this stuff. Well, if one stop selling it, an individual will just go and buy it from elsewhere.
We need a total solution from individual, through retailers, brands, waste providers, government etc. But we need to take time and make responsible decisions.
One of the reasons many items have moved to plastic is due to environmental legislation and voluntary agreements led by government funded organisations. The packaging waste regulations have been in place for about 18 years now, and there are fines for over packaging, though there are few people in trading standards to enforce it. Everyone who is operating at a certain turnover or puts a certain tonnage of packaging into the market have to show compliance on an annual basis. It's basically a tax on the weight of your packaging. Hence, the move from glass to plastic and metal to plastic to reduce this tax burden on the retailers and brands. The Courtauld Commitments that were run by WRAP were initially focused on packaging weight, so again the move was made to lightweight, often to plastic options. They realised this was not taking into account product and food waste and the packaging reductions were increasing damages, so the focus moved to CO2. Hence plastic was still seen as a favourable material. Another focus is on water usage and again plasticis ues less of this than most other materials.
Many people want a move back to glass - yet it is not a solution;
Moving from glass bottles to plastic bottles has taken millions of truck journeys off the road - improving air quality and reducing carbon impact.
Glass is a high energy material to make so has a high carbon footprint.
Glass uses raw materials that need to be quarried from the earth, resulting in loss of habitats and resources.
Glass causes major issues in the environment. Injuring animals, starting wildfires etc. How many of you look for sea glass on beaches, its pretty isn't it, but its still a problem for turtles crawling up beaches and seals and other animals who can get cut by it.
I was on holiday last week and 1 beach has signs on it to watch out for glass.
People who throw plastic bottles into nature will through glass bottles. All we do is change the material. I saw lots of broken glass bottles and metal cans dumped in the environment on my holiday and on the street where I live its primarily glass and metal containers that are dumped on the street.
We used to segregate glass by colour, and although much glass still gets recycled into glass bottles again, some is lost and put into infill for roads as its mixed colours.
In the UK we primarily make clear glass, yet most of the recycled glass is often green because of wine bottles so can't be recycled back into glass bottles in the UK as easily as clear glass.
Aluminium is made from minerals from the earth, one being bauxite, again there is loss of habitat and resources, pollution into rivers and questionable practices around people working in these mines. Not all of them, but some.
Paper seems the best option doesn't it? Well currently there is much debate going on about the lack of biodiversity in some of these forests and whether the trees grown for paper production are growing long enough to absorb enough Co2 to make a difference. There have been issues around pollution and destruction of indigenous habitats to grow fast growing trees for paper and board production. Many western paper mills no longer use chlorine in their process but in other places of the world they still do.
Surely, all of these biodegradable options are the answer. Firstly the conditions in landfill sites aren't conducive to degradation. In America they dug up a landfill site and found 50 year old news papers that you could still read and guacamole which hadn't degraded. The degradation criteria in the natural environment change on a daily basis, temperature, humidity etc and its different in a river, than the sea or land. Equally, I really don't think we should be developing packaging to degrade in nature, we need to be developing packaging that can be reused and recycled over and over again to reduce resource usage.
Some materials sound great - where we grow crops such as bamboo or other materials to replace man made materials. However, the processing needed to convert these materials is intense, with lots of chemicals being used, also indigenous forests are being destroyed to plant this crop thus reducing habitats and biodiversity. We also do not really understand what microfibres of these materials will do in the environment. They may start off as a natural material but to make them a workable item they are in effect man made materials which you would never find nature.
The other thing to be aware of too is that many of these plastic free aisles you keep hearing about the products are delivered in plastic packaging to the store in the 1st place. So check what are they doing with the back of store packaging and what are their food or product waste levels like.
The purpose of packaging is to - protect, preserve, contain, inform, provide legal information, sell, transport, etc. Its there for a reason - I see very few food items over packaged, if it has packaging which seems a lot its often to increase shelf life, though there are of course still some luxury items which still are and multipacks are currently up for debate. I do see lots of cosmetics and personal care items, toys, gifts etc over packaged.
I could go on, but don't want to make you all depressed!
Each of you can do something. Instead of going plastic free become mindful of what you are purchasing and consuming.
Think - do you really need that item? - can you have water instead of fizzy drinks. Flavour it with herbs by making a pot with herbs and hot water and then letting it cool and add some ice cubes (though do we really need ice cubes!!) I like rosemary, lemon balm and mint.
How will you dispose of it at end of life?
What else could I use instead?
I've used white vinegar, lemon juice etc for cleaning for years and mix up with my own essential oils.
Focus on experiences instead of stuff (says the woman with loads of stuff!)
Clothing - if its cheap there's a reason. Make investment purchases with clothing and shoes. I may have a lot of clothes and shoes which I don't truly need (back to that spending addiction I had again!) - but I take care of them, repair them and envisage i'll still be wearing them in my 80's.
Think about every item you purchase and what process have been used to make it, how many people have been involved. I've always fancied the idea of doing a film credit for all the people involved in getting a product to market. It would be as long as the film credits.
Purchase stuff you can reuse, or can repair. Purchase packaging with recycled content (they always advertise this), this then creates a demand.
Recycle as much as possible. Did you know a lot of the thin film plastic such as bread bags and cereal bags within the boxes, can go in the carrier bag recycling facilities at supermarkets.
Get gloves and a litter picker and take ownership of the pavement, road around the perimeter of your home. If you have elderly or impaired neighbours do their perimeter too. Get your workplace to do the same. Encourage your friends and neighbours to do it too.
I hope I haven't disheartened you too much, but I just want you to think. This is very much an overview and summary and I could write for weeks on this and other environmental topics.
The media and consumer pressure to go plastic free is making some bad decisions happen, some good ones, but many bad ones. I know many of the packaging teams in all the major UK retailers & brands, all this anti-plastic rhetoric has stopped them working on the projects to make lasting environmental improvements. They're frustrated at being forced by their MD's and CEO's to change packaging to an alternative without the right data behind the choice and/or are known to have a worse overall environment impact. We need to stop reflect and make long term decisions. We need to consume less.
Thanks for getting all the way through and I hope its useful. I can honestly say I've only skimmed the surface theres a lot more to it than this. If you've got any questions I can send you some useful links which will be a bit more accurate.
Yes plastic is a problem, yes we do need to clean up our seas, but we need to clean them of all materials - plastic, glass, metal, paper, chemicals, sewage, toxins etc,
We've got a long way to go, our small steps can help, but we still need to educate all those people who leave their rubbish in nature.
Haulwen runs a portfolio business called Haulwen Ltd - you're familiar with the coaching side, The Uk Mojo Coach, but another side of my business is packaging consultancy, advice and packaging training with a focus on packaging and the environment. I'm also a writer and currently putting together a proposal for a self-help book and writing children fiction including one about waste in the sea which I finished a couple of years ago (I started it in 2009) and I need to edit and get it published.