A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about greenwashing and why it annoys me. If you missed it, you can catch up here.
It got a mixed response in some quarters, partly because people want everyone to say plastic is evil and any alternatives are better. But there are very valid reasons why this is not the case.
If you switch to buying drinks in a Tetra Pak style carton instead of a plastic bottle, thinking that would be better. Cartons like that are very difficult to recycle are they are made from plastic lined cardboard (so-called composite materials). It’s difficult to separate the different materials and the U.K. currently only has the capacity to process approximately a third of the cartons we use. Incidentally, this is also why single-use coffee cups are problematic to recycle, so always carry your own reusable one!
If you switch to glass, whilst widely recyclable, it’s a much heavier material, meaning it requires more diesel to transport it. It’s also not infinitely recyclable so it will get to a state where it degrades to the point of no return. Note this is not the same as the closed-loop recycling systems, as used by milk delivery companies. This is where they take the bottles back, wash and reuse them. In this situation, there is less processing as the bottles are not broken down and re-manufactured, so it's a more environmentally-friendly system.
What about paper and card? Producing paper is a very energy intensive process, it uses trees (obviously) and if you’re still going to throw it away after one use, it’s not really any better is it? Also, the UK does not have enough capacity to recycle all the cardboard and paper thrown away, so much gets shipped abroad (hence more diesel used for transportation).
There’s increasing evidence that the move against plastics is having a counter-productive effect in some quarters.
For example, the 5p charge for single use carrier bags helped reduce the number in use significantly, with people buying so-called bags for life instead. However, people are now buying bags for life every time and using them only once. This is worse than the original single use bags because bags for life are thicker so use more plastic and more energy to process. And if you're using your cotton tote shopping bag you need to use it hundreds, if not thousands of times, to balance out the greater impact of growing the cotton and manufacturing the bag.
Many restaurants have replaced plastic straws with paper ones, but again they are often plastic coated so they’re not really recyclable, especially once soggy with liquid. Just ditch the straws all together, or bring your own reusable one instead.
Plastic packaging can also help to reduce food waste by extending the life of certain foods. I’m not taking about bananas wrapped in plastic, or peeled oranges in plastic tubs, that’s clearly ridiculous and should be banned immediately.
But more fragile foods like lettuce and cucumber last longer when they are kept fresh in plastic. If you don’t believe me, here’s a wonderful rant from Riverford Organic Founder, Guy Singh-Watson about the problem with plastics (caution: there is some swearing!).
The challenge for consumers is cutting through all the noise and nonsense to make sense of what’s actually the best course of action, and that’s not always easy.
If in doubt, please note that plastic is not (always) the issue, single-use anything is the problem - whether that’s plastic, paper or glass. The priority is to reduce what you use. This includes reducing the amount of single-use packaging, but also reducing consumption overall – switch to buying less (or secondhand) but buy well-made products that will last.
Here’s our handy list of ways to help the environment:
1) Consume less, especially fast fashion. We covered the topic of secondhand shopping previously.
2) Look at choosing items that have less packaging - so switch to solids for shampoos and soaps, buy loose goods and keep your re-usable produce bags and pots handy.
3) Re-use as much as you can, either though buying re-usable items instead of single use (coffee cups, straws, nappies, bags, period stuff etc...) or by switching to second hand, passing things on or upcycling items to give them a new lease of life.
4) When you've done all of the above, recycle as much as you can of what's left.
If you’re interested in finding out more about your personal carbon footprint and ways you can improve, WWF has a really easy carbon footprint calculator and some helpful tips at the end!