A symptom of our time-poor convenience-driven lifestyles is disposable packaging as we treat ourselves to pre-packed meals, Amazon deliveries and takeaways. So it is no co-incidence that when you look in the recycling bins on bin day they are overflowing and “single-use” was named the Collins word of 2018.
If like me, you have consciously tried reducing your packaging footprint, you soon realise that is necessary to go back to basics and find time. Time to go shopping in the greengrocers and the local zero-waste scoop shops. Time to prepare food from scratch, and time to cook. And if you want a fresh salad, you need time for gardening. Although, modern devices like blenders and slow cookers do provide some shortcuts.
The original marketing campaign for plastic, was emancipation for women from the kitchen sink, with the development of throwaway plates. And when you look at all the benefits of plastic, from microwavable meals, light-weight food protection and pre-portioned meal boxes it seems it has liberated everyone from the kitchen.
But surely if we can recycle then there is no problem? Well yes, if everything got turned back into more of the same then it wouldn’t be such a problem because there wouldn’t be a demand for more raw materials (think of all the trees being cut down for cardboard packaging) or materials being shipped around the world looking for a disposal route.
When we look at what recycling means, aluminium is infinitely recyclable with most cans containing 68% recycled content; although the strip mining of aluminium bauxite is highly destructive and polluting. Clear glass contains on average 30% recycled content whilst green contains 68%, whilst again the production is very energy intensive.
In contrast, plastic polymers have been deliberately made hard to recycle to prevent a secondary market. This means they are often ‘downcycled’ into other products like piping and furniture. PET and HDPE are the easiest plastics to recycle back into bottles and this practice is starting to increase with Fairy and Ecover producing 100% recycled bottles in 2018. But due to the cheap price of virgin plastics the demand hasn’t been present from producers for recycled content or for producers to take responsibility for the materials that they put on our shelves after use.
This leaves councils and recyclers with materials that they need to find a home for, which is where the international commodity market comes into play and ‘recycling’ is sold around the world for ‘processing’. It can end up in countries that have significantly weaker environmental controls on burning and dumping waste. It is no coincidence, that the rivers that dump the most plastic pollution into the oceans are places like China where historically western countries sent their low-grade plastic recycling to. And since China banned plastic imports, UK recycling has been found dumped in illegal plants in Malaysia.
Finally; as our oceans are nearly at suffocation, legislation and initiatives are being put in place to reconsider the pitfalls of our single-use culture. The UK Government has 30% recycled content targets for packaging producers in its new Waste and Resources Strategy. And more excitingly, international schemes are being developed to make reuse more viable with delivery services like ‘Loop’ trialling reusable packaging with mainstream brands like Pantene and Hagan Daaz; and RePack, providing reusable bags for online retailers. There are also a number of reusable coffee cup and box schemes being trialled with multiple venues participating, on high streets around the world. These schemes are all part of the move to a more ‘circular economy’; meaning that materials stay in use for longer, either through reuse, repair or recycling.
So could ‘reuse’, or ‘circular economy’ stem the tide of single-use? Could they even be the words of 2019? Through my own work with reuse schemes, the issues of time-poor lifestyles and convenience is a constant focal point for usurping single-use. It also remains to be seen how producers respond to changes in legislation and the requirements for responsible production and eco-design, without finding short-cuts. As well as if the UK Government will actually ban some ‘single-use’ items such as cutlery and straws or just consult on these issues.
If you want to find out more about these issues: where are recycling really goes, what the circular economy alternatives are and how you can reduce packaging from your own business or lifestyle then join me for the Tipping Point: where does our waste go? On 21st March, at the White Rabbit in Clifton, Bristol.