Drowning in plastic
Ditching plastic...is it really that simple?
Without doubt plastic is now the most widely-used food and drink packing material. Thanks to its flexibility, low cost of production and durability, plastics are a key material of our modern economy. However, our love of plastic is a huge problem precisely because of its low cost and durability. The BBC’s recent documentary, Drowning in Plastic, shocked us with its bleak investigation into the havoc that plastics are causing all over the world.
Fundamentally, it is the chemical structure of plastics that causes us such a problem. It is estimated it can take anywhere between 450 and 1000 years to fully break down. It is estimated that only 9% percent of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced since the 1950’s has been recycled. 79% of it is still with us, either in landfills or in the natural environment. If this continues to grow at its current rate, by 2050 roughly 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will fill our landfills and will continue to spread rapidly into the natural environment. Some estimates, including a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum, suggest there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
How easy is it to recycle plastic?
Some plastics just cannot be recycled using common mechanical recycling methods and, although not yet economically viable, cutting-edge chemical processes are being developed to combat these challenges.
Fortunately, many types of plastics including PET, PE and PP can be mechanically recycled but they are frequently incompatible with each other and they therefore require the additional cost of manual separation before recycling.
Something else to consider is contamination. The addition of a thin layer of aluminium to the plastic to create items like crisp packets makes them unrecyclable. Whilst companies like Walkers have committed to achieving 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable packaging by 2025, the cost and complexity of managing the estimated 7,000 non-recyclable crisp packets they currently produce every minute in the UK remains a challenge.
Black plastic, frequently used to package prepared food is a problem too. According to WRAP an estimated 30,000 tonnes of black CPET packaging from household isn’t recycled. Around 15% of all plastic in recycling centres is single-use black plastic food containers and the sensors in the recycling centres do not pick up or detect the black pigment. This means that along with all those crisp packets they don’t get recycled but end up in landfill or energy recovery.
Thankfully brands are starting to make changes; Waitrose recently reported they are trying to combat and ban all black plastic trays in their 350 stores across the UK and will replace these with 100% FSC-certified cream-coloured trays and WRAP is trialling changes to the usual black CPET trays, to make them detectable and ensure they can be sorted through household recycling collections. However, all of these changes require investment and support and of course every change must be operational and economically viable in full scale commercial conditions, so change is slow.
Looking for alternatives
Products marketed as a sustainable alternative to regular plastic, such as compostable and bio-degradable plastics, all offer potential solutions, but it isn’t straightforward. Plastic described as ‘compostable’ won’t just magically break down and disappear as it falls at the side of the road and the change to sustainable packaging comes with many challenges. Challenges include consumer confusion over how to dispose of these new “plastics” correctly, the increased cost of the raw materials for sustainable packaging and the huge costs of changing manufacturing machinery coupled with the environmental impacts of growing crops for this type of packaging.
Is it possible to ditch our throw away culture?
80 years ago, consumers weren’t buying disposable items to use once and then discard. But in the booming economy of the 1950’s, we started mass manufacturing complex manmade materials, unaware or unwilling to think of the future impact of our new throw away mentality. The growing population of mass consumers and manufacturers keen to meet our every need has resulted in the never-ending production of waste. We have created a “linear plastic economy”; with finite supplies of oil, manufactured daily into disposable plastic items which, all too often, are only used once and thrown away. When this happens, the materials and energy are completely lost and manufactures must use new resources to continue production. An unsustainable state of affairs. The use of carefully chosen plastic alternatives along with reusing, reducing and recycling our plastic waste will help but change is slow.
We need to rethink our relationship with plastic and build a more holistic circular model for plastic and for our economy. Treating plastic as a valuable resource and using it wisely to help reduce damage to our environment must be the way forward. Until we do, our waste will continue to cause harm.