The Big Plastic Debate - part 2

Climate change, biodiversity or plastic?

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At the moment there are many contradictory requirements from governments across the globe, the UN and from environmental organisations, as well as the media.

 So what should the focus be? Climate Change, loss of biodiversity and habitats or plastic in our oceans?

Today I'll do an overview but will do separate blogs on each area in the coming weeks.

According to New Scientist magazine climate change and loss of biodiversity are still the biggest threats to the planet and because of this certain initiatives have been in place to look at ways to reduce our impact particular regarding Climate Change. However, recent meetings at the UN have been postponed on this topic in favour of the current "trend" about plastics in the sea.

Plastics in the sea is a massive issue, but should it become the main focus at the expense of more important issues such as climate change? And are some of the decisions we are making to stop using plastic now moving us backwards in how we were tackling climate change and loss of biodiversity in the world? Or should we just focus on plastic and forget about the rest?

Lets look at some of the detail;

The UN states that there will be an extra 2 billion people to feed by 2050 and because of this, most nations have signed up to commitments to reduce waste and improve utilisation of resources so we can feed this growing population.

The extra food production to feed these people could contribute to an increase of 2 degrees C, warming the planet to critical levels. Already we are seeing extreme weather conditions which are not sustainable for human or any life. And this is becoming more and more of an issue. 

This year will be a pivotal year when it comes to food production. In the northern hemisphere crops are being decimated by the heat, whilst in the southern hemisphere we are seeing flooding and typhoons doing the same. Food prices will rise, there could be shortages of certain food stuff's, yet in the West we will probably not be impacted as much, as we can afford to pay more for the food. Developing and third world nations will be hit the hardest.

 Right now for every 2 tonnes of food we eat, 1 tonne of food is wasted, according to figures from WRAP (the waste resource action programme). Yet, people are still starving in the world.

We in the West are privileged in being able to make decisions to use food with a shorter shelf life because we want to reduce our plastic usage. But are we inadvertently causing more food waste, and causing more food to be diverted from people in third world countries because we can afford to pay more?

For the last 10 years the retailers, manufacturers and brands have been encouraged to reduce food waste. Ironically, one of the best materials for extending shelf life of food is plastic as it can give high barrier with a lightweight packaging material.

WRAP has been leading an initiative called the Courtauld Commitment for over a decade which has looked at reducing packaging, reducing food waste, reducing carbon emissions and water usage.

Initially the focus was about reducing the weight of packaging - to comply with the EC Directive for all member states to reduce the amount of packaging being produced. This is a legal requirement and there is a "tax" on packaging waste in the form of Packaging recycling notes which all users of packaging most comply with if over a certain size.

This legislation and these voluntary agreements have pushed forward technological advancements and initiatives to do all sorts of measures to lightweight packaging such as;

- light weighting of glass bottles and jars, 

- light weighting of metal cans, 

- light weighting of carton-board and corrugated 

and light weighting of plastics.

 It also saw the move from materials like glass, metal, board etc to plastic materials which are lighter weight.

Now, in hindsight people can look at these initiatives in horror and deduce that these were bad decisions to make. But were they? 

Along with all of these initiatives on lightweight were initiatives to improving recycling particularly of plastic. 

WRAP, the government and the industry invested in improved recycling for PET bottles and HDPE milk bottles so that these are now as widely recyclable as glass and metal and cardboard. A lot of work has been done and continues to be done on recycling infrastructure for;

-black plastic food trays - trials have been successful and the sector was starting to roll out these initiatives to close this loop.

- flexible materials - single ply PE  materials such as carrier bags, bread bags, magazine bags, vegetable bags etc - a few years ago there was a big initiative to get this infrastructure in place starting with carrier bags which would help make this viable. However, since the carrier bag tax and ban this initiative has lost its pace and momentum, due to the lack of volume to make it sustainable. check the website to find out what you can and can't recycle.

We need to consider these are new recycling infrastructures and like anything take time to get established. We didn't used to recycle glass or metal. Even my own father remembers there were no dumps or waste collection and you threw your glass and metal into the streams. The recycling of these materials only became common place in the 80's when we'd all take our cans and our glass to the local recycling centre, before kerbside collections started.

Moving from glass and metal to PET and HDPE may now seem counterintuitive but it depends on your focus. This move has seen thousands of trucks taken off the road due to the fact you can get more plastic bottles onto a pallet and into the trailers than glass or metal. This has helped reduce carbon emissions and in turn reduced the amount of air pollution into the atmosphere. These initiatives have helped governments and organisations to hit their targets to not only reduce the amount of packaging being placed on the market, but also carbon emissions and has ultimately led to a reduction in resources. Not just material resources but also energy, water, and minerals such as silica sand for glass, bauxite for aluminium, trees for paper products, and plastics.

The next area of focus was then on reducing food waste and continues to be a focus - to help consumers to reduce waste in the home, but also in the supply chain.

Reducing food waste helps reduce carbon, which is seen as a major contributor to climate change, it reduces loss of habitats and biodiversity, as stops the land grabs of rainforests for growing food crops. Yet currently, the best material and lightest weight material is plastic.

And this is the dilemma - now the focus is changing to move away from plastic even ones with recycling infrastructure back to glass and metal, because of the amount of plastic being found in our seas.

What is the answer?

Well, the first thing is trying to stop the media hysteria on the topic. Organisations like the Ellen McArthur Foundation have been working on Circular Economy initiatives for some time to ensure we look at all materials and has a focus on plastic materials too, but not about banning them. It's about find a more circular system for their use, yes some may be eradicated and some already have e.g. PVC in foodstuffs, but this initiative looks at a new way to reutilise resources.

It's confusing, even people in the packaging industry don't know whats right and what isn't any more which means some quick, knee jerk reactions are being made not considering the long term impact. 

Plastic is not the right answer for everything, but equally it is not the ultimate devil the popular press are making it out to be. It is plastic and in certain circumstances it's the best option.

But we have other materials we can use those can't we?

I know;

- Surely biodegradable and compostable materials are the answer. At this moment I'll just say a big NO. I'll write about this separately but many of these "so called" materials are actually more harmful to the environment due to misleading claims from some unscrupulous organisations. Currently the EU, Ellen McArthur Foundation and many brands and retailers are calling for a ban on certain types of these materials and stricter regulations due to the long term damage some of these materials are doing to our ecosystems and the misleading "greenwash" claims they are making which is misinforming people. Some are excellent, however the bad ones seem to have the biggest marketing budgets. {angry face from me}

- We should move back to the way we used to shop and in old forms of packaging like glass, paper and metal. 

1) We have much larger populations to feed now so going back to the old way of selling and growing our food isn't an easy option, we need to use technology to move us forward and the Ellen McArthur Foundation is funding some of this.

2) Glass is a high energy process releasing lots of carbon to atmosphere, it uses minerals from the earth which are becoming rare commodities. Beaches in some parts of the world are actually being stolen because sand for the construction industry is in such large demand and this impacts silica sand for glass too.

3) Metal - iron ore and bauxite has to be mined from the earth - there are some very questionable practices about bauxite mining in places such as Nigeria where slave and child labour are being said to be used, and the land is not being returned to its natural state after quarrying, plus the pollution into water courses.

4) Paper - did you know a lot of paper for the board products you purchase comes from South America? We grow hardly anything in the UK and Scandinavia cannot supply all our needs. Although there are schemes in place to protect, there are questions around this. Also, it's a high energy process and current research suggests the trees aren't grown long enough to counteract the carbon being used in the conversion process.

5) Bamboo - I'll write on this separately but indigenous forests are being destroyed for bamboo plantations seeing a loss in biodiversity, the processes used to convert bamboo are highly energy intensive and use lots of chemicals being put into rivers and oceans. 

But I want to stop plastic going into the ocean?

- If you do that means you were never a person who was responsible for putting plastic into the ocean in the first place.

Less than 2% of the plastic in the ocean comes from UK, Europe, US and Canada.

Over 80% comes from countries such as India and China - they are where we were 50 years ago when we were throwing glass and metal into our streams, rivers and the oceans - they're doing the same but with plastic. The western world has to help them make the leap to managing there waste better.

For now the best things you can do are;

1) Recycle, support the recycling infrastructure, recycle your plastic and keep putting it out to recycle. If everyone stops recycling plastic because of articles stating only 15% actually gets recycled then the infrastructures will collapse. Do your bit and let government, local authorities and brands and retailers do theirs to build the infrastructure to recycle more.

2) Reject - over the coming weeks I'll explain what packaging to reject, because you don't need it, this won't just be plastic.

3) Buy British - it reduces the transportation and shelf life requirements and reduces the need for plastic.

4) Buy fruit and veg thats in season that way we don't need the plastic to preserve it in the same way. 

5) If you are privileged to be in a position to shop more regular to reduce the shelf life you need, then do it, but not everyone has that luxury.

6) Buy frozen - frozen fruit and veg is often frozen within a few hours of picking and retain more vitamins and minerals. The freezer bags can usually go for recycling in carrier bag recycling.

7) Don't buy multipacks - it's packaging thats added only for convenience of taking it home. It will cost you more, but thats the way it is at the moment. 

8) Plan your food so you waste less. Can you freeze it. Invest in a freezer, if no room in your kitchen there are some pretty ones from companies like Swan and Smeg and Bosch etc which look fine in your dining room (if you have one).

9) Educate - I'm horrified at the pictures of beaches across the British Isles this summer - strewn with litter. On my own holiday I found beaches covered in glass beer bottles and beer cans. I would never dream of dropping litter but it seems to be a cultural issue we have where people thinks it's someone else's responsibility. We can ban plastic all we like, but these people will drop litter whatever its made of - glass and metal injure wildlife with their sharp edges. Paper contains inks and glues and bleaching agents which release into the oceans. 

10) Go meat free (if you don't already) at least once a week. 

Thanks for reading through to the end.

So much to tell you, but the coming blogs, I'll make into more bite size chunks. 


Haulwen Nicholas

Life Coaching with a hint of witchery, The Magical Mojo Coach (Haulwen Ltd)

I reconnect people with wonder, magic and learning so that together we can heal the world. That way we can begin a journey of reconnection with the inner wise woman, only then can you create the life of your dreams. I am a fully qualified NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Coach, Myers Briggs, Hypnotherapy and Time Line Therapy TM practitioner. I run the Magical Mojo Academy an online community and platform for group coaching for individuals who want to take control of their own journal of re-discovery, self-care and self-development for an affordable monthly membership free. I also run a free community The Mojo Coaching Club to give monthly free hints and tips for women wanting to change their lives.