1. If you look inside almost any trash can, I bet that you can identify most of the products in there by their colorful labels and containers even if only small portions are visible. This waste from containers and their packaging is seldom given much attention.
2. The vast majority of landfill pollution that does not biodegrade is the rubbish and refuse from packaging and containers – “packaging pollution”.
3. Packaging – much of it single-use food wrapping – has created a rubbish problem that now pollutes every corner of the world. Manufacturers got us into this mess, but it’s up to us to dig ourselves out.
4. I was told by a restaurant owner on a Thai island that local fishermen used to wrap their lunch in banana leaves, which they would then casually toss overboard when done. That was OK, because the leaves decayed and the fish ate the scraps. But in the past decade, he said, while plastic wrap had rapidly replaced banana leaves, old habits had died hard – and that was why the beach was fringed with a crust of plastic. Beyond the merely unsightly, this plastic congregates in continent-scale garbage gyres in our oceans, being eaten by plankton, then fish; then quite possibly it’ll reach your plate.
5. This is a worldwide problem – we can’t point the finger at Thai fishermen. The west started this. The developing world justifiably yearns for its living standards and, with it, its unsustainable convenience culture.
6. The UK alone produces more than 170 million tonnes of waste every year, much of it food packaging. While it has revolutionised the way we store and consume food, there is now so much of it that landfills can’t cope. Some of it is poisonous, and some of it never degrades. It can take 450 years for some types of plastic bottle to break down; one type, PET, while recyclable, doesn’t biodegrade at all. And yet only a third of plastic packaging is recycled.
7. “we never actually throw anything “away” – it’s really just put somewhere else.
8. But recycling is just a drop in the ocean – most of the environmental cost of our throwaway wrapping is upstream – in its manufacture. We were closer to an answer 30 years ago: what on earth happened to milkmen and bottle deposits? Now we live in an absurd age where a packet of crisps can have seven layers of wrapping.
9. It’s easy to despair at the scale of the task, but it isn’t beyond humanity to solve it – look at how the world took action on CFCs: there are signs that the hole in the ozone layer is now closing. Food packaging ought to be a doddle.
10. Manufacturers got us into this mess, and our governments must take responsibility. But will they? There are some signs the ship is creaking toward a better course: the words Reduce Reuse Recycle have been on conscious consumers’ lips for decades; recycling is now commonplace, and there are newer initiatives like the plastic bag charge. We’d also do well to follow France’s lead in banning plastic cutlery, cups and plates.
11. Certainly, the major brands have made efforts to transform their packaging to incorporate recyclable materials, but reality shows that less than 70% of the packaging is recyclable so far. There are legal and security constraints required to protect the consumer, but is it necessary to put a cardboard wrapper on yogurt containers that are already attached together, or put toothpaste tubes in boxes, which also arrive at the merchant over packed to avoid breakage during transit. This necessary evil forces the recovery of a large amount of boxes that in the best case are recovered by retailers of slightly used boxes. So in the name of consumer protection and product marketing, packaging represents 175 kg of waste per person per year, or 385 pounds, it’s huge.