Plastic pollution has rapidly become one of the biggest issues of recent years, with many now trying to significantly reduce their plastic waste.
Millions of tonnes of plastic find their way into the ocean every year, creating a garbage patch in the Pacific twice the size of Texas. The UK alone goes through an estimated 3.7 million tonnes of plastic a year and in 2015 only a third of this was recycled.
Plastic products can take over 400 years to decompose and as they do the plastic particles left behind continue to cause damage. Hundreds of thousands of these microparticles enter the food chain every year which, along with any toxic chemicals attached to them.
A new report by the Green Alliance has shown the clear issues in how supermarkets and brands are responding to the customer demand for less plastic. Often alternatives such as glass, metal and paper have a much higher carbon footprint, particularly if they are still single-use items.
The report detailed, for instance, that the paper bags often used instead of plastic ones in supermarket bakery aisles are just as quickly disposed of, but producing them uses four times as much energy.
Morrison’s has chosen to replace it’s plastic grocery bags with paper alternatives, but these would have to be used 43 times to beat a plastic counterpart on lower environmental impact.
This may even present a reverse trend as in recent years many consumers, encouraged by the 5p charges, had begun to move to reusing their plastic shopping bags and may immediately think that they don’t need to do the same with a paper alternative.
The Green Alliance report showed a worrying tendency for supermarkets and other manufacturers to not fully consider and assess the environmental impact of plastic alternatives and instead opt for knee jerk removal.
It is shocking how quickly plastic became an everyday staple in the modern world. In the little over 100 years it has existed it’s presence has seeped into almost every minute of our lives.
It was only in the 1950s that plastic really started to take off. With a rapidly growing consumer culture, it is easy to see the attraction of this material.
It’s lightweight but durable, easy to clean, flexible (making its uses almost endless) and, above all, relatively inexpensive to produce.
When we look at the products we will use over and over again these virtues shine out. A hardy set of reusable containers could last a family their whole lifetime, and even be passed through generations if well cared for, although these cheap products are rarely seen as a family heirloom in the same way that a glass bowl might be.
This is part of plastic’s problem. The cheap material is not readily made into cherishable items and instead creates mounds of highly durable tat that is disposed of without a second thought.
There are, however, ways for plastic to be positively used and this presents our second problem with plastic: our complete aversion to the stuff.
In the last few weeks, around 7 million real Christmas trees will have been disposed of in the UK. Although there are environmentally friendly methods of doing this, it is a sad fact that many of these trees will end up in landfill.
If you buy an artificial tree it will take only 10 years of use for it to be less carbon intensive than it’s soil-grown cousin and a good quality artificial tree can easily last a family for decades.
While there are clearly reusable and durable products which utilise the benefits of plastic, the more significant issue is the single use, disposable plastics which are currently choking the oceans.
However, there still needs to be a level of scrutiny of the alternatives offered. Bamboo coffee cups, for instance, quickly became a popular alternative to disposable cups which nearly always come with a plastic lid and coating on the cup.
These bamboo cups are supposedly made from a sustainable alternative, however, the bamboo fibres are held together by a plastic glue. The glue is not intended to be exposed to high temperatures, and the boiling water needed to make your favourite hot beverage means that hazardous plastic particles are being released into the drink.
As well as being bad for health, these cups are often not so easily disposed of as the manufacturers claim. It is difficult to separate the bamboo fibre and the glue when it comes to recycling. Instead, it is likely the cup will end up as another product in landfill.
The issue with our plastic use and with popular alternatives stem from the same impulse towards easy solutions.
Consumers need to reconsider whether plastic is always the enemy but overall live by the mantra of reduce, reuse, repair, and, finally, recycle.
Market-based solutions will struggle, as it is our massive consumption habits which are the root issue and the cheapest solutions will likely not be the best. The Green Alliance noted that there have been calls for more government intervention on plastic waste as well as a more holistic approach to material use.
To truly fix our addiction to plastic we are going to have to avoid the easy answers. Like all aspects of the environmental crisis, the solutions are going to be difficult and require significant change to our way of living but they are out there and becoming increasingly accessible.
Liz Lee Reynolds is a freelance writer focussing on place and the environment. She tweets @LizzieeLR.