It’s been 80 years since initial production of polythene as we know it. Polythene was created purely by mistake in 1933, but the scientists at ICI hit on something very exciting, a very stable, mouldable, waterproof and semi-permeable material. At the event of World War 2, commercial production was quickly halted, secrecy increased, and polythene was used to make important insulation for cables for radar.
With mass production starting after World War 2, plastic in its various forms has never been bigger. We use plastic for a myriad of uses: Bags, food packaging, computer parts, medical supplies, farming, clothing, bedding, even park benches and replacement hips!
Since the 1960’s, plastic has evolved into countless different types, and with so many uses. In modern society there are so many different types of plastic, we don’t always know how to dispose of them correctly. Due to this confusion, it’s sometimes simpler to simply discard into ‘landfill’ waste.
Of course, this is not sustainable. Landfills are unsustainable, especially when plastic CAN be recycled, infinitely.
With plastic being present in so many areas of our modern lives, it begs the question: IS there a way of truly going plastic free, without negatively impacting our planet even further?
In the food industry, it’s indisputable that plastic keeps food clean, fresh, and free from unwanted bacteria. We are already moving in the right direction, by moving from lesser recyclable black plastic trays to clear ones. We know that plastic milk and fizzy drink bottles are also widely recyclable.
The matter of food waste is also an important one. Of course we can remove unnecessary plastic from certain food packaging (such as a tray AND a bag), but some food packaging prolongs the life of food typically three or four times longer than without any packaging. If the packaging is eradicated, are we looking at even more food going to waste?
In the retail industry, we now have had the ‘carrier bag tax’ since 2015 in the UK. Whilst this has indeed changed the habits of shoppers, and resulted in around an 80% decrease in ‘single use’ carrier bags. We’ve replaced the thin (HDPE) carrier bags by using paper bags, or other ‘bags for life’.
The alternatives can be totally degradable and recyclable in forms of paper, cotton and jute, which is fantastic, however, we need to take into account the resources required to manufacture these alternatives (virgin paper uses thousands of gallons of water in manufacture). Cotton shopper bags need to be used around 20,000 times to equal the footprint of a single use HDPE carrier bag for instance.
It’s obvious that no packaging is not the answer. We need smarter packaging. Packaging that is streamlined in terms of recyclability, and more education in how to reuse all types of packaging sensibly.