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  • Writer's pictureDoug Hull

My Plastic Rant...

Plastic is everywhere... like Wham's 'Last Christmas' in December... no matter how hard you try to avoid it, it is inescapable. But, unlike the song, plastic has an upside - it is undeniably useful! Think about the food industry where it offers convenient and hygienic packaging at a very low cost. Would you buy a piece of raw meat wrapped in paper? What about bubble wrap - isn't it great? For decades the world has been plastic crazy, and it has made our lives so much easier, but now we are starting to come to grips with its devastating impact on the environment. So what do we do? And how do we deal with all this plastic?

"Can we not just Recycle it?", I hear you ask. Well, yes, but it isn't straightforward. Of all the recyclable materials, metals offer the highest reward. Recycling aluminium cans, and most metals for that matter, offers a significant energy saving and reduction in the need for new virgin material. Glass and paper are also very recyclable, however the energy savings are slightly lower than with metals. Still, it can be a profitable endeavour to recycle these materials, and doing so keeps them out of landfill sites and off the streets. In terms of toxicity to the environment, paper biodegrades fairly easily, while glass and metal take longer to break down, but they are typically not very toxic. Then there is plastic... sigh... the problem child.

As an aside, can I just say that I was flabbergasted to discover recently that the plastic logo with the arrows and the number has nothing to do with recycling. It is literally just about identifying the type of plastic. Yes, arrows in a circle, not misleading at all. It is not far fetched to think that the plastic industry intentionally sought to create confusion here, and make customers feel better about using something 'recyclable'.

But how recyclable is plastic? Well there is a growing trend for 'down-cycling' plastic into things like clothing or park benches or Christmas decorations, which are all great ideas. The problem is that this is not really recycling since the plastic is not being re-used for anything like its original purpose, so new plastic is being produced to replace the down-cycled plastic. Some harder plastics are recyclable, but only type 1 and type 2... out of 7 different types! So what happens to the other 5 types? Well if we are lucky they end up in landfill, otherwise they end up in the ocean or polluting the landscape for hundreds of years.

There is also a growing problem in the first world called 'aspirational recycling' where people try to do the right thing, but end up making things worse. The problems are caused when people put all their plastic in the recycling bin (and feel good about themselves for doing it). This can have the opposite effect to what was intended by causing issues with the sorting and processing machines at recycling centres - leading them to jam up and sometimes break, costing time, money and effort to the recycling companies who are trying to do the right thing.

So what is the solution to the plastic conundrum? Ideally the world should produce less plastic. This will impact the current producers and manufacturers of plastic packaging, so any pressure will have to come from the top. Joe, Boris, Xi, if you are listening, and I know you are regular readers, why not put a tax on plastic, like we do for tobacco or sugar? Plastic is just too cheap and convenient these days. Make plastic packaging less cheap and the market will adapt to find newer greener alternatives.

We should also try to use less plastic to Reduce the demand. Easier said than done I know, but the world is starting to change slowly and alternative options are appearing in supermarkets, online and in the shopping malls. When we see a 'less-plastic' option we should take it. If it means paying extra, and you can afford it, then do it. The more support these alternatives get, the bigger they will grow and the demand for greener packaging options will snowball.

And what plastic rant would be complete without mentioning the third of the three 'R's i.e. Re-use. As I tell my kids, even if you re-use a plastic water bottle or container only once, it doubles its value in the world.

I'm sure we could all do with a little less plastic (and Wham!) in the world!

Until next time!

The Regeneralist

aka Doug

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