Practising what we preach - on plastics

| 9th November 2018
Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Photo: Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Photo: Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
The Resurgence & Ecologist magazine has ditched the plastic wrap after a year of searching for the most sustainable solution.

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Everything is degradable - whether it takes 500, or 1,000 years to break down. That doesn’t necessarily make it environmentally sound - sitting in landfill for all that time, or floating across the oceans and breaking down into microplastics.

It may not degrade at all if it’s hidden from sunlight in a mountain of landfill.

Although many of you have led the change, there are those who still expect a plastic coating on many of their products. Why else would Sainsbury’s have coined the concept of “touch-free” packaging? Sorry, Millennials, they’re blaming this on you.

Positive alternatives

Let’s not forget a commercial interest in plastic. Companies have a vested interest in this convenient material.

According to sustainable campaigners WRAP, both virgin LDPE and HDPE prices are at almost £1,300 per tonne. Virgin PET plastic currently trades at around £1,052 per tonne. Clear PET bottle prices have recently reached £178 per tonne, the highest price point seen since November 2014. 

But there are alternatives and as the Soil Association research shows, 88 percent of people want to reduce the amount of plastic they use. 

Biodegradable, and compostable packaging is a positive move away from our love-affair with plastics, which began sometime in the 1940s.

In April this year more than 40 companies agreed to cut their plastic pollution over the next seven years. The likes of Asda, Marks & Spencer and Coca-Cola have all signed up to the promise, led by WRAP.

Sustainable packaging 

This, according to forward-thinking compostable packaging firm TIPA is a target that can be achieved.

Daphna Nissenbaum, Founder and CEO of TIPA, said the drive to find a new solution to plastic was personal for her: “The idea was born from a need, seven years ago, when I had an argument with my kids about plastic bottles.

"I thought there must be another way to deal with them. Then when we started, I realised the bottles are not the main issue, because water bottles can be recycled, but flexible packaging cannot.”

Creating sustainable packaging means that TIPA’s “bio-material” is fully compostable so after several months it will have fully degraded, much like an orange peel or a banana skin.

Daphna told The Ecologist: “For around 70 years or so we have been using packaging, so I don’t think it’s an option right now to have none at all, although of course if there is a way not to have packaging then that is the best way. 

Careful consideration 

Daphna continued: “I don’t think we can reverse the plastic crisis, but I think we can dramatically change the future.”

Originally working with food packaging, the toughest nut to crack in the plastics battle, now TIPA is working alongside Stella McCartney in the fashion industry and Daphna says they are getting enquiries every day from new industries. This is a sign that change is heading in the right directions.

Daphna added: “The compostable wrapper is the future.” But not all ‘compostable’ products meet the same criteria as TIPA’s fully biodegradable products. 

On WRAP’s blog - in a piece entitled 'The Unintended Consequences of a War on Plastic' - Peter Maddox wrote: “Compostable plastics actually release greenhouse gases as they biodegrade. Plus complications arise if these alternative materials get mixed with conventional plastics in recycling routes.

"By their nature, they are designed to break down, not to be recycled into, let’s say, a damp proof membrane to line your floor. Now, let’s just imagine the unintended consequences of that! There are some contexts where it makes sense to use compostable material, but again it needs careful consideration.” 

Minimal regulation

Andy Cross, who runs Earth Friendly Foodware, based in Devon, says part of the problem is the amount of plastics that are used in single products, making them harder to recycle, or less commercially viable.

He says compostable products that we’ve rushed headlong into producing aren’t the long-term solution. What we need to get better at is re-using and better disposing. 

He told The Ecologist“People are beginning to join up the dots. Since Blue Planet II hit our screens there’s been a mad rush to do something about the plastic problem. There has been a response by commercial companies to bring in products that satisfy this hunger.

Cross added: “It can’t be the final solution. The rush to change products has overlooked how we dispose of things.”

Now enthusiastic responsible consumers see the word compostable on a product and we assume it’s safe and sustainable. But Andy Cross says there is very little regulation on what constitutes compostable, and accreditation is voluntary.

Record levels

Take the example of straws. When marketed as “biodegradable” there’s an assumption that they are safe to use.

Andy said: “Biodegradable straws get in the food chain quicker. They have metal in them, it helps them break down.” Suddenly, the natural solution isn’t sounding quite so natural. He said it’s a simple decision – either use a paper straw, or no straws at all.

Andy continued: “How did we get to using plastics? We justified the use of packaging, we globablised the selling chain, we offered consumers choice. They then want the lowest price.”

With some studies suggesting that by 2050 we’ll have around 12 million tonnes of plastic in landfills, and the recent reports of record levels of micro-plastics found floating in sea ice in the Arctic, the urgency with which we address this enormous problem is paramount.

A review of regulations on packaging needs to be carried out now people have realised we need on it on our products for such a short timeframe. With the huge impact it has on the planet it’s now beginning to be seen as a frivolity.

Final straw

Positive moves are being made all the time. Surfers against Sewage have gained huge momentum with their Plastic Free campaign; the Final Straw campaign to ditch plastic straws has proved effective, as has the Government’s ban on microbeads, and the Refill Campaign is driving behavioural change in consumers to use refillable bottles and cups.

Coffee chain The Boston Tea Party led the way in banning disposable cups altogether, and both TIPA and Earth Friendly Foodware are the companies actively looking for solutions.

It is this type of action that makes the real difference.

Using compostable products is far better than using oil-based plastic and The Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine is pleased to have found a solution for its own packaging. 

Jeanette Gill, of the Resurgence & Ecologist team, said: “As a charity we are always on a tight budget but although the current potato starch wrapping is more expensive, it can be composted at home or disposed of with garden waste at your council. We felt this was very important and it fits in with our ethos.”

This Author

Laura Briggs is a regular contributor to The Ecologist and tweets as @WordsbyBriggs.

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