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Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Blue Planet Effect

I’m loving the Blue Planet Effect. Never before has plastic packaging had so much attention.
But I’m noticing that people are sometimes deciding to ditch single use plastic in favour of other forms of single use packaging, which can be more carbon intensive to produce. Paper, glass, and compostable packaging are undoubtedly less damaging to the ocean.  But all packaging comes with its own issues.

Plastic has become a popular packaging because it is lightweight, which reduces the carbon footprint of transportation.  Plastic is cheap, which helps keep prices low.  Plastic is waterproof (until it rips!) so helps with deliveries that could otherwise be spoiled by rain. Some advocates of plastic say it helps to reduce food waste. For example, plastic packaging (of the airtight kind) can help prevent oxidation which leads to discolouration of foods such as meat or avocados.  It is said that cucumbers are wrapped because it slows down the rot, making them last 10 days longer (as long as you don't open the plastic, I guess).  As I read on one pro-plastic website:

"Try as we might, we will always create some waste. In the end,
 which would we rather create – a little bit of plastic waste or a lot of food waste?"

They've got a point, of course, but we won't mention the tonnes of wonky cucumbers that get wasted because they are not the right size and shape to go through the packaging machine.

Another advantage of plastic is its recyclability. Unlike paper and card which can only be recycled up to 5 or 6 times before the fibres become too short to be usable, plastic can be recycled over and over again.  For food grade plastic, we can't say that it is infinitely recyclable like aluminium or glass, because a tiny fraction of the inside of the plastic is scraped off and disposed of to ensure the resultant rPET (recycled Plastic) is clean. However, it is more recyclable than paper and card.  

Furthermore, a paper bag has a carbon footprint of approximately 16 times that of a plastic bag yet probably doesn't last as long.  It seems like we can't win, doesn't it?

The big problem with plastic really is almost the same as the advantages.  It is lightweight and cheap. Because it is lightweight and cheap it is hard to ensure that transporting used plastic for recycling is economically viable.  It needs to be crushed and baled in order to get rid of the air before it is transported.  Because it is cheap, not many organisations that produce waste plastic value it enough to  have the space for a baler and to store enough bales for it to be viably transported.

Because it is lightweight it is easily blown about by the wind.  So even if you do put your used plastic into a bin, if the bin is not well designed the plastic can find its way out again.

The real way forward is to ditch those things you can do without altogether by switching to reusables.  Here are my top 5 easy switches:

·      Straws …either refuse or get a reusable, dishwasher-proof stainless steel straw. 

Metal straws with cleaning brushes

·      Bags… you can buy or make lightweight reusable net bags for your fruit and veg and reusable shopping bags are plentiful and equally easy to make your own.  In my local butchers we have no problem taking our own tubs to buy our meat and we can reuse our egg boxes too. 

Net veg bags from Onya
·      A reusable water bottle will save you money and be kinder on your health as well as the planet. We know the downside of fizzy drinks, and don’t be fooled by flavoured waters, milkshakes or fruit juices as they can be just as bad or worse. Bottled water has a carbon footprint 1000 times greater than tap water in a reusable bottle.

My refillable water bottle comes with me everywhere.
 It has saved me a lot of money over the years.
·      Cling film – it is a nightmare to use anyway, so swap for a lidded container or a plate that fits over the top of the bowl.  Clean tea towels are also a good thing to cover food with as they prevent the food from drying out, keep off any flies and (most*) other creatures.  Unlike cling film, though, a tea towel will stop the food from sweating. I also invested in some reusable silicone baking sheet and this sometimes does the job of lining things that I might previously have lined with cling film, like for making fridge cake in a loaf tin.  I also invested in a couple of packs of Bees Wrap which I find very handy.  It rinses really easily and I have been using mine for a couple of years now and it still looks like new.
Various alternatives I use in place of cling film.
·      Takeaway coffee – break that habit and you would save a fortune, but if you really can’t then make your savings bit by bit with a reusable coffee cup. Many outlets now offer money off your coffee if you bring your own cup.

If I don't have my coffee cup with me I don't get coffee
 unless it is in a proper cup!
If you are not quite ready for reusables yet, you can still do your bit by making sure you recycle all the plastic packaging you can.  In the UK we recycle 58% of our plastic bottles. That means that a whopping 42% get discarded in the general waste and in the hedges and ditches of our countryside.  

There has been a lot of talk about the Chinese ban on waste form other countries. Switching to brands using recycled packaging helps to keep the value of recycled plastic high and this will help the UK companies that recycle plastic. Higher demand means higher prices and that comes from brands that use recycled plastic in their bottles getting good sales and those that don't losing market share. We can all help with that by checking out the packaging of what we buy.  Many years ago Coca Cola did an experiment to see if a 100% recycled bottle was a viable option.  It was, but we are not recycling enough of our plastic to meet the demand for 100% recycled so they opted for 25% recycled content.

Switching to compostable packaging helps too but only if you then put it on your compost! Compostable packaging breaks down in a home compost or industrial compost facility, but it won't break down in anaerobic digestion and it will take many years to break down in Landfill.  I decided back in 2015 that I wouldn't buy snacks like crisps, cakes, biscuits or nuts unless they are in compostable packaging, which I do then take home with me for my compost.  Making that decision has, I am sure done me a lot of favours, as I usually take some nuts and dried fruit from home in a small container when I am travelling about and otherwise, I just wait until my next proper meal.  I think my waistline thanks me for that decision on a regular basis!

* Neither cling film nor a tea towel will deter a mouse.  It will just chew right through it to get to the tasty offerings beneath :)