40 % of plastic is packaging, used once and then discarded, much of it ending up in the sea. (Plastics or Planet. National Geographic 2018) It is time to turn the tide. Recycling is a start but we need a range of end of life solutions for all `plastic’ that is not compostable.
It is satisfying to see one country after another banning the global plastic flower –the plastic shopping bags that festoon trees and fences without prejudice. Plastic shopping bags have become a symbol for the con in convenient plastic – but they are just one of the single use plastics (SUPs) that industry should have accepted producer responsibility for many years ago.
The PET water and soda bottles that mark the high tide of the worlds beaches, lakes and rivers need to be the next target. Again, industry has refused to take real responsibility for their PET bottles and instead blame consumers for littering.
Brand managers who demand unique packaging designs that are expensive to recycle are co-culprits. As consumer awareness grows, so we see these brands as pollution not desired product. Both the packaging industry and brands are stuck in outdated and abusive models of make – use – chuck. Excuses such as industry job losses ignore the necessary transition to environmentally sustainable alternatives with new jobs.
People all around the world are sickened by all the plastic they see in Nature, by daily images of wildlife strangled in plastic and reports that micro-plastic particles are in OUR food and drinking water. Sir David Attenborough’s Blue and My Planet photographers now need a clean-up team to remove the plastic discards of human civilization before they can capture their iconic images of once unspoilt nature.
UN Sustainable Development Goal on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SDG 12), specifically targets the substantial reduction of waste generation through prevention, reduction, reuse and recycling. Governments are starting to listen, hence some bans on easy to replace plastics. In South Africa the Dept of Environment called for a Packaging Industry Waste Management Plan. Industry responded and various rounds of consultation were held in early 2018. Nothing appears to have happened since! What is industry waiting for – Producer Responsibility is already identified in our National Waste Management Act?
In the face of too little too late action, we the people need to push for:
Bans on SUPs and on non- recyclable plastics.
Packaging that is designed for re-use and recyclability.
Honest labelling about recyclability so that people can choose to refuse.
A real commitment to recycling, including investment for at source collection.
Alternatives to plastic
To identify the typical kinds of household plastic and what is recyclable in South Africa click here for the .Plastic ID table 2019
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation which promotes the New Plastics Economy claims that 20% of plastic packaging can be made re-useable, 50% can be made recyclable with the remaining 30% requiring significant redesign to make it re- recyclable.
End of life uses for plastic that can’t be recycled!
We need all the new Plastic Economy initiatives, now. However, in the longer term we need to dramatically reduce our dependence on con-venient plastic and find end of life uses for plastic that can no longer be reused or recycled.
There are a number of end of life uses which need careful scrutiny, design and implementation to ensure that we do not replace one environmental problem with another. Examples of these include incineration for energy as conventional plastic is an oil derivative. However, the process needs to be properly engineered and maintained so that toxic air emissions do not replace plastic in the environment. Popular eco-bricks which stuff PET bottles with non-recyclable plastic are a temporary solution unless the structures that are built using the PET stuffed bricks are permanently cemented into a structure. How permanent with that be and then what? Melting plastic to bond with bitumen in roads building appears to be a fairly long term solution. Again, the plastic needs to be properly bonded so that micro particles do not flake into the environment. Plastic wood made from a mixture of plastic also has a long life – until the furniture breaks and is discarded.
While we are pushing for recycling to save the environment, reclaim resources and create jobs, ultimately, we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel based plastic.
We do not need to wait for industry to wake -up. We Can:
- use our own reusable containers, straws, bottles and cutlery.
- refuse over-packaged goods and support alternatives.
- buy in bulk and push for dispensers that let you bring and fill your own containers.
- consciously support local recycling initiatives.
For an innovative addition to online shopping, Loop™ offers (overseas) a new shopping system that’s circular by design. Consumer goods from a collective of different brands offer a home delivery service with all the products in refillable containers. The empty containers are collected when the new ones are delivered. Who wants to initiate this in South Africa?
For a fun and informative graphic guide to deplastifying your life look closely at the picture below.