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plastic packaging in vegetable shop

Environmental folklore

Article by: Andrew Eversden, Co-Founder @ Bottle Up

The world has started a war against plastic. Why? Because beaches, rivers and oceans are littered with single-use plastic. Not a day goes by without an image on social media regarding plastic waste. And while I think these images are terrible and they sadden me, I can’t help but think: is plastic really to blame? Is plastic destroying the planet? Plastic gets blamed because it doesn’t biodegrade and ends up in oceans, rivers and landfills. But hang on, this is the same for metals, papers and glass, yet the world hasn’t started a war against them?

I’m not one for writing extreme long articles but I’ve put pen to paper on this topic as I think there are many of us who are unaware of some simple, interesting facts on packaging. So here goes!

When we think about plastic waste, we tend to look at food packaging. We think of most as unnecessary. But is this completely true? Less than 2 grams of plastic is needed to package a cucumber which extends its shelf life by 11 days. For a steak this is even extended by 26 days. So, a little bit of plastic can prevent a whole lot of food from being thrown away. In fact, only 10% of CO2 emitted to produce and transport food worldwide, comes from the plastic packaging which actually extends shelf life.

‘Plastic packaging prevents food waste and lowers carbon emissions.’

Still most of us think alternatives to plastics are always better. We make these decisions based on what we know and think to be right, without any scientific evidence. This is what we call environmental folklore; the stories we take for granted without checking the facts. Believe me, it’s possible to check these facts. Objective comparisons can be made between products by not only comparing the amount of materials used, but also the land, water and energy consumed along the way just to make this product. The footprint however, is not just materials used and CO2 emitted, there’s also human health, the ozone layer and quality of land and water affected by the production to be taken into consideration.

What we need to realise is that plastic is a strong, lightweight material that has half the density of glass and about the same density as paper. But because plastic is so strong, we can make plastic packaging much thinner than other materials. So plastic packaging will nearly always consume a lot less resources and be a lot more efficient in transportation.

If we were to use glass to package all our products instead of plastic, we would use 24 times more resources. And because of the weight of glass, we would spend double the amount on transport. Recycling a glass bottle uses a lot of water, aggressive chemicals and heat. And glass can’t be recycled indefinitely, after 8 times the bottle needs to be melted into a new bottle using up to 1500 degrees of heat compared to 300 degrees for a plastic bottle. The amount of energy needed for glass bottle production and recycling is staggering…

So glass isn’t the green alternative to plastic we all expect it to be.

Shopping bags are another focus point. Cities are starting to ban plastic bags and replace them with alternatives like paper and cotton. We should not be encouraging this. If we compare a single-use thin plastic bag, to a recycled paper bag, you will have to reuse the latter 4 times to better the plastic bag due to the amount of energy, water and land required to produce the paper bag. Who reuses a paper bag four times…?

Then surely the cotton shopping bag, one of the many you have at home printed with a loving slogan, is the solution? Well…no. The production of cotton is so intensive in the usage of land and water, you will have to use the bag over 170 times to breakeven with the single-use plastic bag. That’s over three years of shopping for groceries with a cotton bag before it becomes more sustainable than a thin plastic bag (which by the way you can use more than once).

What about biodegradable solutions? Well…as perfect as it sounds, we are not quite there yet with compostable materials. Because packaging is used to keep our food and drink fresh and also to maintain a certain shelf life, chemicals have to be added to the packaging, as a result making them less easy to biodegrade.

Additionally, most biodegradable polymers will only really degrade at temperatures of 50 or 60 degrees Celsius, and for this you need an industrial composter. So, the wet wipe or bottle, which says biodegradable on it, you just threw in your garden or local river, will still be there next year. It will still be in the river years later. Even when materials do compost and biodegrade, we are putting carbon back in the atmosphere and that is exactly what we are trying to prevent.

So, is plastic really to blame for our littered beaches?

If you ask me, we need to blame the people who put them there, the consumers: you and me. Over 80% of littering is intentional, carried out by individuals. The reason there is so much plastic waste is because we are using so much of it in the first place. So, Reuse and Reduce!

Should we really ban plastic and use alternatives or compostables?

Switching to other resources isn’t the answer either, as we’ve seen in the examples above. If we were to ban all plastic and replace it with alternatives like glass, metals, paper, aluminum, or compostables, the resources required, and CO2 emitted would treble and the amount of energy needed would more than double.

So, Reuse and Reduce!

Don’t go to war on plastic just because it’s the most visible littered material. Gather the facts. Plastic is a precious and functional resource which we need to keep in the materials-loop. It’s unlikely the world will ever be plastic free. Start using reusable plastic in a safe and responsible way, choose sustainable plant based-plastic rather than shifting blindly to other resources. Reuse and Reduce!

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