How can we solve the packaging problem?

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!

Recycle Bins - what goes where?

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.

Plastic Explained.jpg

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?

Paper Bag

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.

Should we really be avoiding plastic?

It seems to never be out of the news these days - the 'war' on plastic. There's now an island of waste floating around in the Pacific Ocean, twice the size of France. Of course this is very alarming news, and we need to take a long hard look at how we treat our planet. But what are the alternatives to plastic if we get rid of it, and are they actually as eco-friendly as we think?

First and foremost, the western world is actually pretty good at sending waste to the correct places. Since January 2018, China have stopped accepting imports of plastic waste, so Western world nations are already exploring different ways to recycle and reduce waste.

Secondly, only 0.28% of ocean plastic comes from European rivers, meaning further education is needed on waste disposal across the rest of the world, not necessarily in our own back yard.
Even in our own back yard, plastic waste accounts for on average 18% of household waste. Specifically, plastic bags account for 3.2% household waste, so we're doing well already. 

What we need to be careful of is focusing too closely on plastic, and taking our eye off the ball with regards to how much of the alternatives we're demanding, what else is being disposed of, and how. Let's face it, packaging is not going anywhere anytime soon, as we live in a world where things need to be delivered, drinks need to be taken away, and food needs to be kept fresh.  Here are a few facts on what packaging does what:

Degradable plastic and Biodegradable plastic
We're now familiar with degradable and biodegradable plastics, as they're offered in varying forms in today's shopping environment, but we're not experts in how quickly these plastics actually degrade, and what the best conditions are for degradation to occur!
Most importantly, we absolutely shouldn't be sending our degradable or biodegradable bags for recycling, as they upset the recycling manufacturing chain.
Degradable plastic has usually 3 or 4% of an additive called deg68 included in standard polythene film, making the film become overall less stable when subjected to light and heat, thus accelerating the degradation process down to around 18-24 months (compared to the approx 100+ years of standard polythene)
Biodegradable plastic is what you would find generally supplied to you by local councils, for food waste use. These bags are totally biodegradable and compostable, meaning they will totally disappear in landfill or compost, leaving only trace elements. These bags are generally made from corn starch material.
Degradable plastic and biodegradable plastic cannot be recycled. It can be re-used in it's usual form until not required.

Cardboard Cartons
Card and paper are an extremely viable and attractive alternative to plastic packaging, due simply to it's ability to completely degrade in any sort of environment. 
It is however more expensive to produce, and unit cost to end user is also expensive in comparison to plastic packaging. 
Also, the paper industry is the 4th largest in the world at producing greenhouse gases, meaning it's carbon footprint much outweighs that of plastic.

Cotton and Jute Bags
The surge in popularity of cotton and jute shopper bags can be seen as an admirable alternative to plastic bags. However, it has resulted in massive drain on resources in poor countries such as India, and crops are being substituted for Jute and Cotton, leaving less food for local people.  
Typically, a cotton or jute bag needs to be re-used 130 times to negate the use of 1x plastic bag. 

Plastic Bags
LDPE (Low Density Poly-Ethylene) and HDPE (High Density Poly-ethylene) are by-products of the oil refining process. Jute 4% of the world's oil production is used in the manufacture of plastics. Both types of plastic are generally used to make plastic bags and food packaging (some food packaging uses other types of plastic).
It takes significantly less in natural resources to produce plastic bags, and uses less energy, than to produce paper bags. 
At the end of life of plastic bags, they can be sent to recycling facility (usually via council household kerbside collection) to be recycled back in to polythene pellets, and re-used again to make any other plastic items.

So to summarise, surely the best option is not to totally eradicate plastic from our lives, but to send more of our used plastic to be recycled.
The term recycled is a fantastic one, because there are so many scenarios for recycling! Specifically for plastic bags, the simplest form of recycling is actually re-using a plastic carrier bag again and again. They can be used multiple times as a shopping bag, then they can be used as a bin liner. Even at the end of their usable life they can still be chipped down and recycled back into plastic pellets, and turned into a park bench (amongst other things)!