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, the vast majority of landfill pollution that does not biodegrade is the rubbish and refuse from packaging and containers – “packaging pollution”.
Throwaway culture has spread packaging waste worldwide
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 – and here’s how
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 …
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.
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.
“we never actually throw anything “away” – it’s really just put somewhere else.
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.
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.
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.
As consumers, we can vote with our feet and our wallets. Even a cursory inspection online reveals a heap of solutions for the canny shopper, from biopackaging for sandwiches and London Bio Packaging. and water-soluble paper to refill schemes becoming available on the high street.
You can probably sympathize with consumers frustrated by the amount of products that are over wrapped, (90% of all products according to the latest studies.). Most of you have noticed that many natural products are presented in boxes, small crates, or with plastic wrap, such as fruits and vegetables that already have natural protection. It is not uncommon to spend more than 15 minutes to unpack the products you bring back from the shop. Merchants too are concerned about the time it takes to prepare the products for display. In short, everyone agrees that there is room for improvement in this environmental challenge.
Extreme pollution: a challenge for brands!
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.
Legal constraints, security and marketing: and Green thinking?
All these excesses in the cost of packaging are passed on to us. Whereas the overall packaging can represent up to 65% of product costs, potential savings are substantial. Of course, we all want to be informed, and have safe packaging but admit that the imperatives of design should prioritize green resolutions, or at least be ecological and economically sound . The 3R approach should be a priority if we want to significantly reduce the amount of waste associated with packaging, third, it is too much. We triggered an embracing of the green movement in February. It is imperative that companies join the bandwagon thinking of future generations rather than product advertising needs.
We must begin to consider actions that will reduce the negative environmental impacts produced by the present packaging systems. Observers are, for example, beginning to see limits to the availability of raw materials needed to make some packaging materials. Second is the rapid depletion of the energy sources required for the production of packaging. In addition to the natural-resource issue, it is important to recognize the potential reduction in pollution that would result from reusing and recycling containers. A new system is needed in which consumption is decreased, and materials are reused and recycled.
Plastic packaging pollution, accumulation in the environment of man-made plastic products to the point where they create problems for wildlife and their habitats as well as for human populations. In 1907 the invention of Bakelite brought about a revolution in materials by introducing truly synthetic plastic resins into world commerce. By the end of the 20th century, however, plastics were found to be persistent polluters of many environmental niches, from Mount Everest to the bottom of the sea. Whether being mistaken for food by animals, flooding low-lying areas by clogging drainage systems, or simply causing significant aesthetic blight, plastics have attracted increasing attention as a large-scale pollutant.
You benefit from plastic from the moment you get up and use your toothbrush or kettle. Plastic is embedded in agriculture – and it keeps you alive if you end up in hospital. Even some of our money is made from it. Yet I can’t watch the news without being bombarded by the evils of plastic. As a polymer scientist, it feels like my life’s work is dismissed as immoral by even my hero Sir David Attenborough, simply because I deal with plastics.
But plastic itself is inanimate and cannot be evil – what’s morally wrong is what humans do with it.
But some plastic packaging does have benefits – even for the environment. Some packaging, for instance, prevents enough food waste (and therefore deforestation, fertiliser use or vehicle emissions) to balance out the inevitable litter. So how can you tell what is and isn’t worth it?
One reason this is so hard to figure out is down to the nature of the material itself. Different kinds of plastic have to be separated for recycling because they contain tiny building blocks that don’t mix at the molecular level. For instance, even many chemists don’t realise that polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) don’t mix, though they are the two of the most common forms of plastic and both have the same empirical formula of n(CH2). That’s why separating plastics at the recycling centre is so important.
A sports drink, for instance, can have three different and incompatible types of plastic in the bottle, the shrink-wrapped film, and the lid. All three components can be individually recycled but they are rarely separated other than by shredding.
Or look at black plastic trays. Their only function is to amplify the colour of a product, yet they also prevent recycling as sorting machines cannot detect black pigment.
In many cases, the packaging does have a genuine function and prevents waste by, for example, sealing in moisture or gas. But this can also mean certain thin films of plastic become impossible or prohibitively expensive to separate.
Packaged fruit and vegetables are egregious examples of excess plastic because they already come in a protective skin. Bananas already come in a perfectly designed wrapper – individuals can be snapped off a from a bigger pack, the skin splits length ways to expose the product, and it is truly biodegradable. Prepacked orange segments, meanwhile, last about four days whereas a whole orange can last months. Compare the environmental lifetime of orange peel (months) and polyethylene (effectively eternity) – all for the convenience of not peeling an orange. Such packaging serves little practical purpose, yet only a minority of supermarket fresh fruit and veg is offered “loose”.
Consumers are waking up to some of the worst excesses – see the recent furore over an M&S cauliflower steak that was pulled after complaints. But none of this is simple. Given that prepacked fruit and vegatables enable some disabled people to access fresh food, one person’s lazy and profligate is another’s lifesaver.
Durable plastic can be useful
So what can be done to reduce single-use plastic? A society that valued the environment over marketing could make evidence-based choices. On a larger scale, this involves policies such as the UK’s 5p carrier bag charge, which has driven an 80% reduction in single-use bags.
But personal actions matter, too. Take the choices involved in a simple packed lunch of a falafel wrap, prepared at home. For the wrap, many advocate reusing aluminium foil rather than clingfilm. But foil has to be reused nearly 200 times to release less greeenhouse gases than clingfilm – 5g of aluminium versus 0.2g of film at six times more embedded energy and nine times more GHG per gram.
Compare this to a reusable plastic sealed bag made from 14g of the same material as the clingfilm. This only needs to be used 70 times to get ahead (on GHG emmisions) of using new clingfilm every time, while there is no daily clingfilm or weekly foil going to landfill.
Or consider bottled water. The logical approach here is to reuse thicker bottles 100 times or more, but this may require a deposit scheme, collection and return, wash and refill – all of which costs. Thin single-use bottles are the lowest price, whereas refilling and reusing has the lowest environmental burden. Companies’ balance sheets and our pockets lead us to single-use plastics in the sea.
Single-use plastic is a complex issue – in some cases it is very useful, in others just the opposite. But consumers can make conscious choices, businesses can act responsibly and governments can enforce good policy to rid ourselves of pollution for profit.