The “Blue Planet Effect” has arguably been the watershed moment in people questioning our relationship and usage of plastic in our day to day lives, and with good reason. The shocking images lay testament to an issue that has long been relegated to the forum of climate cafés and environmental gatherings. But in amongst this, the message has been somewhat muddled and the problems highlighted in the series have been blamed almost exclusively on plastics. This isn’t entirely false but it represents an oversimplification of an issue that is a direct result of our consumption habits. Plastic, like metals, paper and glass are a resource that have been adapted to fit the demand for convenience and, by direct consequence of their versatility and relative low cost, they have become the preferred facilitator for our on the go lifestyle. If used responsibly plastics can have many highly desirable uses as they can be both durable, lightweight and efficiently produced on scale to meet demand.
The problem is this demand has become unsustainable. Both consumer behaviour and lack of adequate waste infrastructure to cope with the scale of consumption results in plastics dropping out of circulation and into the wider environment where it poses a threat to the local wildlife and ecosystems. Plastics in the ecosystems are the symptoms of a flawed approach to consumption that requires systemic change to correct. Substitution simply isn’t the answer and whilst glass, paper or metal based alternatives are being promoted as plastic free alternatives, many of these items are still designed for single use. Once you take into account the increased costs in producing these items in terms of carbon emissions and resources extraction many of these plastic free alternatives are no better in terms of environmental impact.
A solution that is being increasingly promoted and sought after by consumers is switching from plastic based packaging to biodegradable or plant based products. The rationale for this is obvious to the consumer, you buy the product then dispose of the product and the product will disappear. The reality is that things aren’t as straightforward as they may appear. Biodegradable products are designed to be as durable as their plastic based alternative and rightly so. They will be expected to be water tight, durable and safe to use for both hot and cold products as opposed to their alternative. However, because these products are designed to be durable, under normal conditions these won’t simply disappear if discarded in a litter bin or worse, littered. If your biodegradable cup or bottle is littered it still poses many of the same threats to ecosystems as their plastic based alternatives.
Yes, many biodegradable products can in theory be turned into compost but, in order to do so they need to go through an industrial composting process as home composting systems won’t reach the required temperatures to break down the chemical bonds in the products. So when you are buying your food or drink to go in a “biodegradable container” it is in all likelihood going to end up in a bin on the street or office and eventually sent to landfill. It is feasible a biodegradable product may breakdown in landfill over a period of time but, in doing so it releases methane, a greenhouse gas around 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Then even if a product does end up in an industrial composting facility it is likely to be removed as a suspected contaminant unless the facility it ends up in is aware that the product is biodegradable. Based on all the difficulties outlined, the odds of a biodegradable product actually biodegrading are very slim. These products also aren’t recyclable, as recycling processors aren’t able to incorporate plant based products into the plastic mix. Given then the sheer difficulty in ensuring the correct disposal procedures of these products there is very little realistic chance of biodegradable products being disposed of effectively.
Ultimately the solution is relatively straightforward but requires a radical shift from consumers and producers alike. Consumers should avoid single use items and choose reusable alternative such as a travel mug, water bottle and tote bag. Producers need to make greater accommodation for on the go reuse, particularly at events where reusable cutlery, crockery and wash stations should become commonplace. Anything that cannot be reused and has reached the end of its usable life must be fully recyclable. The fundamental problem isn’t plastic. The real inconvenient truth and solution is it’s the people themselves, and the way we as a society utilise resources, that fundamentally need to change to make the biggest difference to the world around us. Alternatives are available but we need to be bold and accept some inconvenience in the short term to make the biggest difference in the long-term.
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