It’s Plastic Free July and, as such, an opportune time to reflect on the progress of the anti-plastic movement. The past year has seen massive waves of awareness reach our shores. Media attention has risen, and so too the interest and opposition against current plastic policy. In just one example, albeit a significant one, public animosity drove Countdown to ban plastic straws by October and single-use plastic bags by the end of the year. However, while this was both very exciting and highly commendable for Countdown, it is just one step across a bridge of rich tapestry. Of course, any step is better than no step, but in this case, it’s important not to lose sight of just how big the issue is. If we dwell too much on the small successes, we’ll never have the time to reach for the bigger ones calling out to us.
The Plastic Pledge
A particular instance of this notion met the face of media just last month in time for World Environment Day. Themed ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’, companies like Coca-Cola, Foodstuffs, Nestle and New Zealand Post made a pledge to use “100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging in their New Zealand operations by 2025 or earlier.” Though in writing this pledge has much to be celebrated, in actuality, it is an illusive commitment dismissive of real, measurable goals. Whether it’s the companies’ intentions or not is extraneous, but what does matter is how they choose to respond to their pledge. Will they supply ‘plastic alternatives’ that have an attractive label of recyclable but are doing equal damage to the environment? Will they switch to biodegradable materials? Will they utilise emerging technologies to develop innovative solutions? Whatever they end up doing is up for question, but what we do know is that there’s a slim margin for error. Admittedly, these companies are not to blame. The issue is one for our whole society to tackle; however, getting ourselves into this mess has made it increasingly hard to get out.
“It’s clear we cannot recycle our way out of this problem.” – Emily Hunter, Greenpeace NZ Oceans Campaigner.
One thing I’m looking into this month are the environmental impacts of plastic alternatives. Although I was conscious of their impacts prior, I hadn’t realised that many of these substitutes are significantly more environmentally damaging than plastics. For example, because glass bottles are around 10 to 15 times heavier than their plastic counterparts, transport of these bottles is hampered not only due to their fragility but the fact that approximately 40% more energy, and therefore CO2 emissions, is required to move them from A to B. Eliot Whittington of the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership couldn’t have put it any better.
“It is not as simple as ‘plastic is bad’ so let’s use something else… It will require a complete change in the way we use product packaging at the moment. Most packaging is now used just once and thrown away. We need to move away from that. It needs some form of leadership from government… Rather than going back, it is perhaps more useful to look at innovation”
Whittington believes that bioplastics are the way of the future. Bioplastics use plant-based starch or proteins to produce basic hydrocarbon materials which, in some cases, are then able to degrade and become completely compostable materials. One such bioplastic is polylactic acid (PLA), a thermoplastic that breaks down with heat and moisture. These bioplastics are much more promising than typical plastics which take years to break down and, even in doing so, continue to exist as smaller microplastics posing further risks to marine life. However, issues arise for bioplastics, too. Not all bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable and, even when they are, the necessary requirements for them to kickstart this composting process are largely absent from common knowledge. For instance, many people aren’t aware that PLA requires heat and moisture to biodegrade. As a result, these plastics are currently serving as single-use equivalents at a range of events and in businesses around the world. A further issue with biodegradable plastics are the societal attitudes we naturally stir up with when we hear ‘biodegradable’, ‘recyclable’ or ‘compostable’. Not only do we lump these plastics in with each other, we tend to think that it’s okay to keep producing these forms of packaging. It gives us, and businesses, an excuse to continue our current behaviours and merely shift the issue to another sector, plastics sorting.
“It treats the symptoms, not the disease… If the disease is our throw-away society, making packaging biodegradable only encourages people to throw more away.” – Eliot Whittington
So what does this all mean? Perhaps we need a mindset change. Perhaps there are ways we can make more targetted, purposeful and, most of all, sustainable change. What if, instead of eradicating plastics in hope of sustainability, we ensure plastics themselves are more sustainable. That is, extending their use by date to last a lifetime or two, challenging the status quo of plastic manufacturing and revamping public attitudes towards plastic and its place in packaging. No, this does not mean making plastics sustainable in the sense that they’ll always be on our shelves and in our homes; it means extending their capacity to serve as more than their intended purpose. No, this doesn’t mean forgetting about increasing public knowledge around biodegradability, compostability and recyclability; it means that we container shift away from the mindset of needing to use a disposable cup, fork or knife, allowing us to act upon the goal of knowledge, accordingly. By putting this concept of sustainability into solid practice, we can help all people understand our three often confused concepts, as if they were first aid kits for the premature demise of a more sustainable plastic tool.
Until we can safely reuse our traditional single-use plastics, here’s to Plastic Free July and more fantastic steps towards beating the plastic problem!