Plastic Confusion and Why it is So Important to Look at the Bigger Picture

Plastic Confusion

Today I am meant to be writing about how to have a resourceful Christmas, but frankly, this feels more important. I am coming across more and more cases of products that according to their appearance, and their description, would seem to be ‘plastic free’, recyclable or kinder to the environment because they are ‘biodegradable’!

What many of these products actually are are quick-fix solutions that haven’t been thought through, or even worse, people trying to cash in on the plastic problem by appearing to be doing something environmentally beneficial. Often these products do the opposite, and make the problem far far worse! The result is increasing consumer confusion – as if we’re not confused enough by the variances in recycling rules – and people wasting an awful lot of energy actually doing the wrong thing! Here are some examples of what I mean!

Biodegradable Plastic

Manufacturers, event organisers, retailers, caterers…they are all falling over themselves to announce that they will be using biodegradable plastic for this that and the other, whether it is to wrap their product or to serve beer at a festival.

The reality of ‘biodegradable’ plastic at this point in time is that it, more often than not, will need to be processed in an industrial facility.  If you throw it in your normal bin, it will go to landfill with the rest of your rubbish, and could easily take just as long as non-biodegradable plastic to degrade!

People say to me, well it is better than the alternative, but I am afraid that just isn’t the case. A lot of it will end up in the wrong ‘waste stream’ because to all intents and purposes it looks like normal plastic that we might recycle – certainly that is the case with cups, bottles and now increasingly plastic bags, which are more and more readily recyclable these days. If you do put biodegradable plastic into your recycling, because it is made of a vegetable-based polymer, it will contaminate that batch of recycling in the same way that food waste does, and lead to spoiled batches of recycling.

Buyer beware is all I am saying! If you can’t guarantee your ‘biodegradable’ plastic is going to end up being processed in the right way, give it a miss! It’s not really helping the problem at the moment!

Compostable Plastics

Compostable plastic does appear to have more going for it – it still requires certain environmental conditions to break down, and I have seen suggestions of chopping it up before you compost it to help the process. But in theory, if you put it on your compost heap at home, or add it to your food waste collection, compostable plastic should break down into organic matter at some point.

The issue here is where you don’t have a compost heap or food waste collection!! That will be me then!!!!  My organic waste, apart from meat, goes to my chickens, but I am not sure they are going to find compostable plastic quite so palatable. It is progress, but not the final answer until everybody can find somewhere to compost it!

Water in Aluminium Cans & Tetrapaks!

Apparently, these are better than plastic bottles? Or so the companies that are presenting them as the answer to the plastic problem will have us believe! Will somebody explain to me why!? Yes, aluminum is recyclable more times than plastic, but as a resource, it is very precious indeed. I am reading the ‘science’ on the website of Can-o-water who make these cans, but to me, it still doesn’t make sense! Flying water in a can around the world seems utterly crazy!

I’ve also seen Tetrapaks apparently made out of ‘plant-based products’ – when I read about it on the Aquapax website, it is actually trees! The water is spring water that presumably will have been transported from somewhere using valuable resources! They also purport to be ‘re-usable’!? But so are plastic bottles in theory! And I think most people will be unlikely to reuse a Tetrapak! Tetrapaks are also notoriously difficult to recycle because of the problem of separating materials, so many places don’t do it. The answer to water has to be to carry your own!!! Buy a lovely reusable water bottle, and refill where you can!

‘Paper’ Packaging

Now, this is the real root of my irritation! I think many of us are now on the lookout for products that are packaged in paper – it feels instinctively more environmentally friendly because we know that paper can be recycled.  What we are perhaps not realising is that many of these paper products are in fact often coated with some sort of plastic, usually to ensure the product contained within is kept fresh.

That may seem like a perfectly acceptable reason to use a plastic coating, but it really isn’t when you think you are buying a paper packaged product that you can then recycle!

Here are some examples of what I mean!

  • Bear Yo Yos – feel papery, but have a foil coating inside! Not recyclable!
  • Warburtons – the greatest sinner in my view as they sell a ‘retro’ style loaf in a wax paper wrapper – I bought it assuming I could recycle the wrapper, but no, I can’t! It’s coated in plastic, and isn’t the sort of plastic you can even put in with the carrier bag recycling, which of course normal bread bags now are!!!
  • James Well Beloved Dog Food – they say they can recycle anything that doesn’t leave their factory, but once it is out, they can’t! Their bags are also plastic coated, so essentially are plastic!!!!
  • Tea Bags  – surely tea bags are compostable, right! No, even the plastic-free ones aren’t! And most have plastic foil wrappers as well.
Plastic ConfusionBear Yo Yo WrappersPlastic Confusion

To me, this is the ultimate sin! Marketing a product based on people’s ’emotional’ attachment to ‘traditional paper packaging’ when in fact that packaging isn’t traditional at all, and worse isn’t recyclable, is unforgivable!

I have contacted all of the above companies, and they have all answered with honesty and with reasonable explanations when tackled. But what they appear to be failing to grasp is that we are making purchasing decisions based on packaging which is misleading and false!

The bottom line is that we are not only using plastic we didn’t know we were using, but we are then recycling these items inappropriately and therefore contaminating waste streams that are probably already over contaminated with consumer confusion already!

I have also engaged with various retailers, and event organisers to appeal to them to ensure that consumers are VERY clear about what happens to their packaging at the point of disposal. That is the very least that most of them can do while they look for a long-term sustainable answer.

But what we really need is for everybody – retailers, buyers, manufacturers, consumers –  to think about and examine the end to end process and lifecycle of any product – not just take as gospel what a sharp-suited salesman might tell us! Yes, aluminum is infinitely recyclable, but what about the other environmental factors and resources used? Maybe they do add up, but how can we be sure?

Ask yourself, where does the product originate from, and where is it going to end up? What is the total resource that will be used along the way be that energy, water, or raw materials. And if you are not sure, contact the manufacturer and ask.

The term for this process is lifecycle assessment. It looks at all stages of a product’s life and determines the impact on the environment. It is a totally logical process…one I am sure a clever computer programme could master!

And it could so easily be the answer consumer confusion! How many of us look at a row of products thinking which one is better for the environment? The answer is usually hemp for the record!! But it is important to realise that if a paper bag isn’t manufactured from a sustainable source, it may not be better than a plastic one at all!

As for manufacturers, please be aware of how your product is coming across – be clear about its recycling and disposal potential, and keep working on those sustainable solutions!!

PS. I am just a very ordinary mum with a passion for waste reduction! I am not an environmental scientist, or qualified in any way to talk about a lot of this – but I am interested, and I do care enough to do forensic research! And talk to experts where I can! If I can do it, anybody can! If I’ve got anything wrong, please correct me! #getcurious

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