Plastic the imperfect with even more imperfect alternatives

Plastic might not be perfect, but sometimes it’s better than the ‘sustainable’ alternatives
In recent years there has been a war on plastics. Primarily made from non-renewable resources and taking thousands of years to break down, it’s no wonder environmental advocates are strongly recommend we move away from using plastic. It is estimated that people in the UK use 5m tonnes of plastic every year, around half of which is single-use packaging. In an effort to reduce this amount, vast numbers of eco-friendly brands, companies and businesses have been vocal about their reduction in plastic use. Iceland has pledged that its own-brand items will be plastic-packaging free by 2023. Tesco, which has set its target at 2025, has reduced the amount of plastic in some of its packaging – including meat trays – and made supportive noises about the much-mooted deposit–return scheme. Whether or not these efforts are actually making an impact (which is highly questionable at this time), it’s clear that there is a general consensus that we need to cut down on our plastic use, or face dire consequences.
However, cutting back on plastic introduces the need for alternatives, from newly created bioplastics, to previously much more commonly used materials, such as metal and glass. While each of these have their benefits, none is a perfect solution while we have a single-use, disposable economy. Evidence suggests that using terms such as biodegradable and plastic-free lead people to be more wasteful of materials, potentially increasing their environmental footprint. Brands, too, have admitted to moving away from plastic without actually doing a full evaluation of whether this will actually make a positive difference. “Businesses admit that these decisions are sometimes being made without fully evaluating the environmental impact of the alternatives”. The result? An equally wasteful, resource-heavy way of life, and increased carbon footprints.
The reason for this is because materials such as glass and metal also take considerable time to biodegrade, so switching to these materials doesn’t necessarily solve our waste problem if we continue to dispose of them so readily. Additionally, these heavy, more fragile materials add extra weight in transport, using more fossil fuels and space to transport. They require extra padding and packaging (often in the form of plastic) to avoid breakage, and if thrown out rather than recycled, can take 500 to 1 million years to decompose, potentially more if sent to landfill. Needless to say, this doesn’t sound like a great solution to our problem.
Of course, if we were to recycle all our materials, the issue would be minimised, However, only 9% of plastic produced since 2015 has been recycled, with 79% ending up in landfill (and the remainder being incinerated). If plastic were to be reused as much as possible before being recycled, this would cut down on its impact significantly. The same goes for glass. In 2015, only around 26.4% of all glass in the US was recycled, despite glass being theoretically endlessly recyclable. This means that valuable natural resources, such as riverbed sand, is consistently having to be extracted, and good quality materials are going to landfill, rather than being reused, thereby requiring further extraction and energy to create more glass. In fact, recycling one glass bottle purportedly saves enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours, power a computer for 30 minutes or operate a television for 20 minutes.
So what’s the solution? The old adage ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is endlessly useful in this content. Reduce the amount you consume. By reducing the amount of packaging you require, you can reduce your carbon, energy, water and resource use, as fewer products need to be produced. Can you buy in bulk? Can you buy less overall? Can you make things at
home rather than buying in a shop? All of these will reduce the amount of packaging you consume. Reuse is one of the most important topics of the moment. Currently we have a very wasteful society, where out of sight really does mean out of mind. However, when you throw out your waste, it doesn’t magically disappear. In the UK, around 25% of household waste ends up in landfill, with two thirds of plastic waste being sent abroad to remove the problem from UK shores. But someone has to deal with it, somewhere. It doesn’t just disappear. By reusing packaging for as long as possible, you can reduce your environmental footprint significantly. Think of the packaging you receive the most of and consider potential uses for it. Wine bottles make fantastic candle holders, takeaway boxes are great for storing leftovers, spray bottles can be washed and refilled and used for misting plants. The possibilities are endless, with a little imagination. If there is no new life possible for your household waste, recycle it, either curbside or in larger stories (in the case of plastic bags and bread wrappers, for example). No matter whether it is plastic, glass or aluminium, it is always more sustainable to recycle than send to landfill. Ensure it is clean and dry before throwing it in the correct bin. Then register to vote in your area and make sure to vote for a government that will work to prioritise reducing landfill waste, increase recycling facilities and focus on environmental issues. We can do a lot on our own, but we require governmental legislation to make real change.
The way we use plastic (and indeed most things) in the modern day is no doubt a disaster. Our reliance on, and tolerance of low quality, single use items is without a doubt contributing to our current ecological crisis. However, we cannot afford to replace one item that receive negative press with another item that has an equal number of different problems. Blanket decision-making such as this is only likely to lead us down further rabbit holes of issues. We need nuanced solutions to what is a nuanced issue, and plastic will likely play a large part in that.
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