The Problem with Plastics

A few weeks ago I noticed a couple of articles cropping up in my news feed with tittles that suggested plastic alternatives could be just as bad, if not worse for the environment, than plastic itself. Obviously, I was intrigued by this, having spent a large majority of time last year reducing my own plastic use, I just could not really comprehend what kind of arguments these articles were going to make. After reading the articles, one from the BBC and another from the Telegraph, I felt rather frustrated. Although they both conclude well, with the Telegraph calling for a change in the throw-away attitude to plastics, and the BBC mentioning consultations on the waste and resource strategy, I feel that their arguments within the articles were rather one-sided, concentrating on like for like swaps and totally missing out other parts of the supply and production chain that can be changed to help us move away from plastics.

The first point made was, that using glass as an alternative would lead to higher CO2 emissions as glass is heavier and therefore requires more fuel usage in transportation. In this case, I would like to argue that we should be moving away from fossil fuel based modes of transportation anyway. We should be investing in electric vehicle technologies so that we can run Lorries off renewable sources, meaning we can use heavier packaging materials without the CO2 cost. I know that this technology is not yet available, but I think rather than dismiss glass as an alternative we should be finding a solution to the increased emission problem. Alternatively, we could move away from central packaging warehouses, towards numerous local ones, then each delivery doesn’t have to travel as far, the extra CO2 cost of the heavy packaging is then balance out by the reduced CO2 from distance. More readily, however, we could move towards a refill based system for liquids requiring bottling, with large containers delivered to shops, rather than multiple smaller ones, thus reducing transportation weight.

Secondly, the argument is raised that plastic packaging prolongs shelf life of food. The specific example of a cucumber is given which will last 6-14 days longer in plastic. They say that this in turn reduces food waste, and therefore greenhouse gasses. However, if the supermarkets were not overstocking their shelves, we would not need to have our vegetables wrapped as they wouldn’t be sat on the shelves for as long, and in turn we would have less food waste. Moreover, there are numerous examples of foods packaged in plastics with no need. I am aware that a number of supermarkets are already addressing the issue of plastic wrapped multi-packs of cans, however products like biscuits in both a plastic tray and plastic bag, or plastic wrapped boxes (teabags are in a cardboard boxed wrapped in plastic) should be looked at with the potential of reducing plastic use.

Thirdly, they argue that there has been a rise in “compostable” and “biodegradable” plastics, and that these terms are not fully understood by consumers. This point I do agree with, as I have been through this myself, it turns out that “compostable” plastics only degrade in industrial composting conditions, they are not going anywhere on a garden compost heap. This leaves them almost as useless as traditional plastics as people do not know how to dispose of them correctly so they end up in the wrong places., leading to the same problems for local ecosystems that traditional plastic would give.

Consequently, I would like to conclude that plastic alternatives are not as bad or worse for the environment than plastic. The way that plastic has shaped the way supermarkets stock produce, by allowing for overstocking, creating “light-weight” products, and encouraging single-use items, means that swapping from traditional plastic to alternatives is going to take more than a like-for-like swap. It may require a change in the whole supermarket supply chain or the way we shop altogether.

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