Anna Cawley discusses the challenges – and solutions – surrounding plastic pollution
BBC TV show ‘The War on Plastics’ has served as another stark reminder of the plastic pollution in our oceans. In Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s own words: ‘we’re just adding to an ever thicker plastic soup’ with plastic being found in the stomachs of all manner of wildlife and destroying the planet’s eco-system. The show’s overriding message was to encourage people to reduce the amount of single use plastic they discard each day. The household cupboard clear-outs shown on the programme were an excellent demonstration of the amount of plastic each of us uses daily.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Plastic has an important role to play, and shouldn’t be vilified across the board. Some plastics can actually help our environment by improving food shelf-life, for example, reducing its carbon footprint and cutting food waste, but most of what we use can easily be replaced with more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Understanding plastic grades and recyclability
Although companies that produce compostable packaging have an increasingly important role to play, vital plastic products will always exist and need to be recycled effectively. The BBC show highlighted the potential issue of segregated recycling ending up in overseas landfill. This is extremely shocking and highlights the desperate need for authorities and organisations to work with companies that are totally transparent about the segregation methods, waste journeys and the processes they have in place for all the materials they claim to recycle. Grading of material is extremely important and the public often isn’t aware that some types of plastic are much better for recycling than others.
It may be that the plastic waste in landfill highlighted by Hugh was of a lower grade. This may have been earmarked for recycling but ultimately wasn’t of sufficient quality to be re-manufactured. This is exactly the type of plastic that needs to be replaced with alternative bio-degradable products or indeed earmarked for RDF instead of recycling.
Another issue highlighted by the show is the huge price disparity between products bought loose, and those pre-wrapped, almost always in plastic. An example was shown where three loose peppers, if bought individually were between 20 – 40 percent more expensive to buy than those which were sold together, pre-wrapped in plastic. Do we need that plastic? Previous research has shown that cucumbers wrapped in plastic remain fresh and good to eat for 20 percent longer, so this suggests a clear benefit from the use of plastic. What are the options if this is the case?
The Co-op has been offering to pack items in customer’s own reusable containers for some time, and most recently Waitrose launched a campaign encouraging customers to ‘wrap their own’. The best way to encourage shops and shoppers everywhere to take this up would be to reward customers with lower prices. To ensure this is commercially viable requires significant research to identify shelf life and wastage, and the steps major retailers are already taking to make this happen are very positive.
Plastic has an important role to play, and shouldn’t be vilified across the board
Another positive step and one which the government is aiming to tackle in the DEFRA Waste Strategy is to end ‘mixed messages’ around recycling. For example, some councils will recycle yoghurt pot trays whilst others won’t. This creates confusion which ultimately causes householders to abandon good recycling practices.
The reason councils have varying rules is because they will have different facilities and budget requirements and can’t all offer the same service. Whilst it might seem counter intuitive, the best recycling rates might be achieved if the lowest common denominator was identified across all councils and this became the universal rule. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that household waste increases, because better segregation means higher quality waste and more recycling. The BBC programme has highlighted again the challenges of plastic pollution. There are solutions available, and we should all reach out for them.