Isobel Roser, Context Intern, investigates the hot topic of 2018: plastics.
The tide of popular opinion has officially turned against plastic. This onetime miracle material is now firmly in the public’s bad books, largely prompted by David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet II’ series which delivered the devastating impact of plastic pollution direct to people’s living rooms.
It’s true that plastic is proving a perennial environmental problem. Single-use plastics – from supermarket packaging to drinks straws – are bought then binned, often destined to be dumped rather than recycled. And if we continue at today’s rate, there’ll be 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste in landfill or the natural environment by 2050.
Businesses and governments have clearly taken note. The UK government recently outlined proposals for a plastic tax, while supermarket giant Iceland announced their plan to go plastic-free and use “less environmentally harmful alternatives.
But is the search for less harmful alternatives as easy as Iceland and others make it sound? As the intern at Context I made it my mission to get to the heart of the matter, by investigating whether the attempts to think outside the plastic box really stack up.
Bio-based or biodegradable plastics
Plastics made from plants instead of petroleum? Surely this is the perfect solution?
Typically grouped as bioplastics, bio-based or biodegradable plastics have been hailed as the saviours to our plastic problem. And many companies have jumped on the bandwagon. Heinz and Ford managed to cook up a tomato-based bioplastic in 2017 , while Soda Stream launched a biodegradable bottle way back in 2011.
Problem solved, right?
Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as they sound.
The lack of clear terminology certainly doesn’t help matters. Consumers are not only faced with bio-based and biodegradable plastics, but degradable, compostable and even oxo-biodegradable materials – all of which have different properties. Some break down naturally, some don’t. And others, like Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle, are purposely built to be durable.
Surely it shouldn’t be the case that the consumer needs a degree in biochemistry to shop sustainably?
Moreover, while we all naively assume that plastics under the bio-banner are as green as can be – the reality is far from true. In fact, bio-based plastics may only contain a small proportion of renewable materials and the production process used to create them can be environmentally damaging. Biodegradable plastics can also cause significant damage to well-established recycling systems and sometimes leave toxic waste behind.
Hmmm…this is proving to be far more complicated than I first thought.
If innovative methods have so many hidden environmental costs, maybe a back-to-basics approach is the best way forward for companies looking to address their plastic usage?
Old-school methods of packaging have witnessed a recent comeback – the market for the humble milkman has even seen a steady increase. Müller UK have taken advantage of this trend, by developing Milk&More (a milk delivery service they acquired after their takeover of Dairy Crest). Many companies have also turned to paper and cardboard in a bid to up their green credentials.
But are the alternatives as innocent as they initially seem? A 2016 report from sustainability data specialists Trucost suggests not.
It argues that replacing everyday plastics with alternatives, such as paper and glass, could have a far greater environmental cost. Emissions, water-usage, transportation costs and material quantities are all taken into account – proving that the alternatives may not be as ‘squeaky clean’ as often assumed.
So perhaps the answer is to ditch the packaging altogether? That’s what Lush – the UK-based cosmetics company – did, and since going ‘naked’ they haven’t looked back. Many of Lush’s products, from bath bombs to soap bars, are sold sans packaging.
Of course, while dressed-down packaging may work for long-lasting cosmetics, this is not a workable solution for all consumer goods. The plastics industry has rightly noted that a deliberate reduction in packaging could dramatically increase food waste, whilst, at the same time, increasing the energy levels needed to transport goods.
Therefore, while plastic definitely isn’t fantastic, the alternatives are far from perfect. As we have discovered, many of the plastic-saving solutions have hidden environmental costs. And to confuse us even further, some schools of thought now suggest that continued plastic-use may be the best way to future-proof the global economy.
So, while the search for workable solutions rumbles on, only one thing is for certain – it isn’t easy being green.