All hail plastic!

Now, everyone knows what plastic is, right? Even the people who are living in remote, self-sufficient communities have likely seen plastic and touched it, even if they don’t use it in their day to day lives. Or maybe they use it too?

Plastic is ubiquitous to modern day living for many good reasons. But it comes at such a significant cost that when you really think of the whole picture it is hard to comprehend. What are we doing? Have we all gone mad? Are we just living ignorantly until humans are the ones who really suffer to do something about it? Or will it all continue as long as those in power continue to profit?

Since the early 1900s, plastic has been increasingly explored and used as a material with many applications. And for good reason! It’s an incredibly versatile material. Plastic is relatively easy to produce, mold into different shapes, it’s an electrical insulator, comes in different colours, heat resistant, microwavable, and so much more. Plastic certainly has a place in modern day use. The current COVID pandemic is a good example, where it highlights how sterile medical supplies, rapid flow tests, medical instruments and more can be rapidly and cheaply developed and distributed across the globe. Plastic has done a great job to transform science and medicine and I think it’s fair to say that perhaps many of us wouldn’t be here without such advances. Of course the term ‘us’ refers to humans…

Plastic’s less pretty side starts with its origin, initially from crude oil sources extracted from off-shore drilling. In itself, this can be an invasive, polluting process, not to mention that crude oil is a finite resource and is made from fossilised organisms (is it vegan friendly? Perhaps that’s a debate for a separate post!). It then takes lots of water (not as infinite as you might think) and energy (usually from fossil fuels) to make the finished product. Any chemical waste no doubt entering waste water pipes and leading into oceans. Once made, it can take hundreds of years, sometimes thousands, to decompose without a trace. And we haven’t cracked immortality yet, so this product is going to vastly outlive each one of us! I’ll be surprised if you haven’t already heard about how damaging plastic is to marine life inclusive of fishing waste through to microplastics (don’t get me started on microbeads in shower gel).

So why are we showing plastic such little respect? We’ve used all this time, energy and resources to make such an impressive product and yet we get what we want from it, once, then toss it aside. Human’s solution to all this plastic waste? Dig a giant hole in the ground and shove waste in it. Or dump it in the sea. Or burn it. I’m sorry, what!?

Sometimes, I find the most upsetting part of being a human citizen is learning how even after you’ve followed all the rules, stuck to guidance, tried to do the ‘right thing’, you’re still causing incomprehensible damage. I’ll share a personal example. When I put waste in the recycling bin I am under the impression it will get collected by council, taking to a sorting centre, processed and reformed into a new product. In reality, it is sometimes sent to other countries to deal with because as a nation we can’t process the sheer volume of waste we produce. The phrase ‘prevention is better than the cure’ comes mind.

I feel there is very much an out of sight out of mind attitude to waste in the U.K. Generally, we’re fairly good at keeping towns and cities clean, in part due to some jolly volunteers who spend their personal time, unpaid, to help make public spaces pristine. We scowl in disgust at poorer countries who don’t have the infrastructure or government backing to keep their streets clean. Little did I know some of that is our waste. Or they burn it for us, polluting their air and damaging their environments. It’s so unbelievably messed up. I’m also saddened to be learning about this at my age, and not from a young age when long-lasting habits are formed.

So the solution is simple, right? Just stop using so much plastic. Stop buying plastic products. Well, as an everyday, average working person I have to confess it is so hard. Society just isn’t geared up for this. The weight of the world seems to be placed on an individual’s shoulders, and they’re expected to ‘do the right thing’ at every juncture. Well, often doing the right thing isn’t the most time-efficient or cost-effective option. When you work full time and have a busy lifestyle and hectic household, it is significantly easier to shop at supermarkets. Nowadays, you can literally tap a few buttons and have shopping delivered to your front door, no need to leave the house. This is compared with making trips to several shops e.g. butchers, greengrocers, eco store, on foot, perhaps children in tow, they shut at 5pm so no chance of going after work, you probably still don’t have everything you need to make a recipe so need to top up at a convenience store, and the whole experience probably cost you more money in addition to your time and sanity.

So why aren’t supermarkets or governments just ‘doing the right thing’ so everyone, environments inclusive, can benefit? I’m fairly sure the answer is money. They want the cheapest, most easily mass-produced option they can get so profits can be maximised. Of course people will choose the path of least resistance. That goes for the consumer, and producer. But if we wait around for large bodies to do the right thing we will sooner die from being buried alive in plastic waste.

My suggestion; the plastic tax. No, this isn’t a tax for individuals that’s added onto products with plastic (although that would probably work too, to some extent). This is a tax for manufacturers. The tax should be so substantial that other environmentally friendly packaging materials are cheaper and will be opted for. The tax earned should then be used to fund environmentally conscious initiatives. Perhaps this has already been considered, and the government is too worried about the damage to the economy.

However, we can be adaptive and have already shown examples of this. There is loads of research into plastic-like materials that are biodegradable, some are looking into developing microorganisms that can decompose plastic. Making changes sometimes pushes firms further. For example, introducing the 5p carrier bag charge changed many people’s habits, made sturdy shopping bags more readily available and places like the Co-op now use compostable materials to make their single use bags. What pleased me recently was some antibacterial wipes that didn’t advertise as being eco-friendly were made from 100% plant-based materials. This is the way it should be. It shouldn’t be such a taxing, conscious effort each time you make a purchase. The right decisions should have already been made prior to the consumer making their purchase. It would mean that instead of relying on the better judgement (and finances) of each individual, the hard work has already been done. This goes hand-in-hand with continued education and formation of new sustainable habits.

This is the main solution I can think of to date. I will be interested to know if anyone has any comments, other suggestions or examples. Please leave a comment if so, and I look forward to hearing from you!

Elle x

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