Is single-use plastic really the root of all evil?

In 2017, the BBC programme Blue Planet ll opened a lot of eyes to the effects of plastic in marine environments. As a consequence, single use plastic has for many people become a symbol of all that is unsustainable and wrong with how we treat our environment. But, is single-use plastic really the root of all evil, or are there other potentially bigger problems that it can help us solve?

The movement against single-use plastic has many different parts. One of them aims to reduce food packaging. A number of organisations advocate for consumers to buy unwrapped fruits and vegetables, to buy in bulk instead of smaller tubs and packages, and to buy fresh fruit and greens instead of frozen or tinned products. All this in the hopes of reducing the plastic packaging needed, and to create less waste that might end up in the ocean. There are even those who have encouraged people to remove packaging from their groceries before leaving the shop as a form of civil protest; to demonstrate to the stores and manufacturers that we want less packaging, not more.

Reduced packaging increases food waste

The problem with these campaigns are that a lot of the advice aimed at reducing food packaging, ends up increasing food waste instead. We buy a large bag of salad instead of two smaller ones to save on packaging, and then we don’t manage to finish it before it goes off. We buy unwrapped fruit and vegetables that have been shuffled around by supermarket staff (and prodded and poked by other customers in the shop), and therefore goes off sooner than we expected; so again we don’t manage to eat it all before we have to throw it away. Food waste occurs throughout the production chain, but a large part of it comes after the product is bought by the consumer. A comparative study found that in both the UK and the US we throw away about 25 percent of the food we buy.

How do we then square that circle? Do we waste food, or create waste by protecting our fresh food better? And of the two issues, which is most pressing when we look at the bigger picture?

The Bigger Picture

The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) published a report in 2011, estimating that each year, one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. That amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. Other estimates are even higher; some say up to 50 percent. This means that we are no longer able to produce enough food to feed all seven billion people on our planet. Consequently, around 1 billion regularly starve. We also continue to burn forests and drain wetlands to create enough arable land for this inefficient food production, thereby creating a whole different set of environmental issues.

Can we make plastic more of a non-issue?

Is it therefore possible to create a scenario where plastic bottles and other forms of packaging is used to prevent and reduce food waste, but doesn’t end up as an environmental catastrophe? The answer is yes, there are other options than to dump it in a river; or even a landfill, where it will take hundreds of years to decompose.

Altering consumer behaviour

One of the most common items seen in both rivers and oceans are plastic bottles and drinks cans. Efficient deposit schemes can ensure that drinks bottles and cans are recycled (or even re-used) instead of ending up in the sea and other places where they don’t belong. Several countries in Europe have such schemes already. In Germany such a system has existed for many years, and the recycling percentage is 97%. The equivalent number in the UK is at present 43%, according to The Guardian, but the British government has finally seen the light and proposed a deposit scheme in England earlier this year.

Germany has had great success with its recycling deposit scheme. Surely other countries can follow suit?

Turning waste into energy

It is also possible to burn plastic (and other) waste in in specialised power plants, where waste-to-energy incinerators create electricity and heating. It does create a certain amount of CO2, but burning one tonne of waste creates only a quarter of the CO2 burning a tonne of oil would. The plants are equipped with filters so toxins and potential pollutants don’t get discharged into the atmosphere. Denmark has such a system, and it works;  96% of all plastic waste in Denmark is either recycled or burned to create energy. In the UK, only 31% of plastic is currently recycled and no nationwide system exists to burn household rubbish.

Conclusion

In my opinion, we should therefore be careful not to get caught up in focusing solely on reducing plastic use at all costs, we need to look at the bigger picture. With proper recycling systems that make it easy for customers to sort their waste, deposit schemes and ways of turning waste into energy; single-use plastic need not continue to be the same huge problem it is today.  I am not saying we shouldn’t try and reduce the use of plastic, I just believe it will be counterproductive if we focus too narrowly, and in the process potentially increase other problems like hunger and biodiversity loss.

Tine Stausholm
About Tine Stausholm 2 Articles
Tine has a BSc in biology and a MSc in biogeography, both obtained in her native Denmark. She has been working with science communication and public engagement in various forms since her graduation. Her international experience includes mentoring education officers on a rhino relocation project in Zambia, and a six month stint as a volunteer research diver in Mexico. She currently lives in London where she works as a survey supervisor for the Forestry Commission.

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