The phone was ringing, the dog was barking and the builder was wanting my attention – when I was connected live to the BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show (11jan18). What prompted me to call? Plastics. More specifically, my husband had phoned from his car suggesting I might like to go on the programme.
Everyone has gone bonkers about plastic – and suggesting the most crazy solutions to the problem. Even the government are at it, with the idea, for example, of ‘plastic-free’ aisles in supermarkets.
Yes, there is a problem. We are an incredibly wasteful society – with so many things being used fleetingly, or not at all, before being discarded. We’re using too much plastic, not enough is being recycled and most worrying of all so much of it is ending up in our oceans and waterways. This is not simply an eyesore, it’s killing and contaminating wildlife and getting into the food chain.
Ellen MacArthur predicts that they’ll be more plastics in the sea,
by weight, than fish, by 2050.
Clearly, something needs to be done, but if you read the papers or listen to the radio, you’ll generally hear a lot of rubbish being talked about plastics.
Here are some of the solutions that DON’T make sense:
1. Replace plastic bags with paper ones:NO! A paper bag takes about the same amount of oil to make as a plastic one. It is 6 times heavier than a plastic bag and 10 times bulkier. This means it will need 10 times more lorries to transport – and they’ll use more fuel too, because of the extra weight. Paper bags don’t last, so they’re more likely to fall apart after a single use. And, when they go to land-fill, which most of them will, they’ll degrade and release greenhouse gases.
2. Introduce more biodegradable plastic: NO! Biodegradable food packaging is actually problematic. If you put it in ‘recyclable’ plastics container – it contaminates the recycling meaning that all the waste has to been thrown away. If you put it in land-fill, which is where most of our waste goes, it will break down and release methane and CO2 and therefore contribute to climate change. If you put it in your household compostable waste it will take far longer to break down than everything else – and so ruin your composting. If you put it in council compost system, they’ll fish it out along with other plastics. There are some good uses for biodegradable plastics, but this isn’t one of them.
|Old fashioned milk delivery doesn’t
3. Bring back returnable glass bottles: NO! A milk-man came to my door offering a glass bottle delivery service a few times a week. I told him that I didn’t want it on environmental grounds – which rather surprised him. Why not? Just imagine if every item of our groceries was delivered in separate lorry – our butter, bread, fruit, meat, detergents etc. And then think about the weight of these goods if they were all packaged in sturdy glass bottles. It must be obvious that this isn’t a great solution from an energy perspective. The glass has to be thicker and heavier, so it doesn’t break – and then it has to be returned to base and washed at a very high temperature. I’m afraid, it makes more sense buying your milk in plastic bottles and putting them out for recycling – even better, if the bottles are made from recycled plastic.
4. Let’s buy more unwrapped fruit and veg: MOSTLY NO! People love this idea. It seems a no-brainer. Actually, it’s quite a complex issue. First you have to consider that you’re not simply eliminating the visible plastic – you want to reduce overall waste and energy too. If produce is being sold ‘loose’, it still needs protecting as you transport it to the supermarket and the customer still tends to put it in a plastic bag to take it away. But there are two further considerations. One supermarket tried moving to unpackaged fruit and veg and discovered that the in-store food waste increased by 50%, as people poked and prodded the produce to choose the best quality ones. Furthermore, there’s more food waste at home too. If you buy a cucumber in a plastic sleeve it will last several days longer than those without. That means it’s less likely to go rotten before you’ve had a chance to eat it – and so less waste.
Of course you will be now be asking ‘what should we do about this?’ It’s not so easy, but here are some pointers:
1. Look at the whole life cycle impact of our food distribution system to minimise waste and reduce carbon emissions: This means looking at what’s the best material to use for packaging both to and from stores, as well as minimising food waste.
2. Move away from our ‘disposable’ society with single use products, wherever possible – not just with plastics but paper and other materials too. One of my particular bug-bears is the incredible wastefulness of disposable paper napkins handed out with pretty well every food or drink product you buy, on the move.
3. Increase recycling by making it easier to recycle and making more products from recycled materials.This is not simply about collecting materials for recycling, but using waste to replace virgin materials for manufacturing products – and making sure the process actually saves energy and other resources.
4. Take re-usable bags, re-fillable cups and anything else you need to avoid unnecessary waste: Lots of people are complaining about what companies are doing but don’t actually take steps to avoid waste themselves. It’s not only when you’re supermarket shopping, but when you’re buying clothes or any other goods – do you take extra bags with you? And, do you take a re-fillable water bottle with you when you’re out and about? I support charging for disposable bags but it should be for all bags, not just plastic ones.
5. Move towards a circular economy.This means designing out waste from the system, so that the resources we use are continually re-used in different forms. For example, you can recycle mixed plastic waste into fascia boards, replacing rainforest wood – they last much longer and when they look tired, they can be recycled again.
6. STOP PLASTIC WASTE GETTING INTO OUR OCEANS.There are all sorts of reasons why this is happening and in my view stopping it has to be a huge priority.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. Remember, this isn’t simply about food packaging – we need to look at all packaging and all forms of waste.
Going back to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They produced a well thought out report on what to do about the plastics problem – Blueprint to design a circular future for plastics. This is the sort of the research that the government should be looking at, rather than simply responding to well-meaning members of the public coming up with a lot of rubbish about taking our packaging back to supermarkets and dumping it at the till… That’s not going to achieve anything useful…
The most precious part of my day is between when I wake up (often quite early) and when I go down to breakfast. I read the paper, tackle a few bridge hands and listen to the radio. Today, I had half an ear on Michael Gove, talking about his environmental plan, when my sister rang. It was about plastics. Oh no… I didn’t like her idea and I certainly didn’t want to hear about it first thing in the morning! But perhaps she did me a favour because it fired me up to call the Jeremy Vine programme and write this blog…
Here are some of the recent links on what the government is doing – it’s not all bad, but the idea of plastic free aisles in supermarkets is populist nonsense.