Single use plastic packaging is mostly an unavoidable part of modern life. No matter where you’re shopping, it’s likely that whatever you want to purchase, comes pre-packaged in plastic. But why is it so bad for the environment? And if so, why do we still keep using it?
Let’s have a look at some hard numbers and facts about our plastic usage.
Facts and Figures
Plastics are polymers derived from non-renewable petrochemicals. The low cost, lightweight, ease of manufacture and imperviousness make it one of the world’s most produced materials, and the favourite of the packaging industry. Products that were once made from renewable, natural materials, including cork, wood, stone, leather, metal, glass and ceramic are now made from plastic.
Humans have generated over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, since industrial scale production of synthetic materials began in the early 1950’s. Most plastics take more than 400 years to degrade and even then it does not biodegrade, it photogrades, meaning it requires sunlight to break down the plastic.
Most of this 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic is still with us today, either buried in landfill or as debris, polluting our oceans and waterways.
This has detrimental effects on marine animals, fish, birds and their natural ecosystems. Only 12% of plastic has been incinerated, and a pathetic 9% recycled (1) (2). Australians send over 1.7 million tonnes of plastic to landfill each year (3). We must do better.
Why Are Plastic Recycling Rates So Poor?
Unfortunately, plastic is much more difficult to recycle than materials like glass, aluminium or paper. It is often cheaper and easier to make plastic products from virgin resources than to recycle plastics into new products.
There are many different types of plastics, all made using different manufacturing techniques. Therefore combining different types of plastic renders it useless for later re-purposing. This means that all plastics must be carefully sorted by their resin code and plastic type before they can be recycled. This is an expensive and time costly procedure, and is the main reason why recycling plastic is more expensive than manufacturing.
Each time plastic is recycled, additional virgin resources must be added to improve the build quality and integrity. Most types of plastic are only able to be recycled a few times before its quality degrades to the point where it is unusable. Further, the CO2 savings made from the recycling of plastic is limited when compared to aluminium, steel or glass.
Whilst it may be cheap to produce and lightweight for transport, overall plastic has a poor recycling efficiency and doesn’t lend itself well to a circular economy.
Types of Plastic
A plastics identification code is stamped on most plastic products, to indicate what type of plastic (or resin) the product is made from. A comprehensive table, identifying each of the plastic codes, their properties and product applications can be found in our knowledge base. Below are the 7 resin codes, all displayed as a number inside a triangle of chasing arrows.
The packaging industry generates more plastic waste than any other, with construction coming in second. In first world countries, the growth of plastic waste in landfill has increased 10 fold, from less than 1% in 1960 to more than 10% in 2005. The main driver behind this growth has been the move from reusable plastic products to single use packaging in the food industry.
The Supermarket Need to Plastic Wrap
The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) has released research by RMIT University on the role of packaging for Australian fresh produce. It highlights that packaging plays an important role in addressing food waste in the supply chain and increasing produce shelf life (6).
Certainly, food waste is a huge issue, with over $20 billion of food wasted each year around the world (7). There is no question that plastic packaged produce slows the oxidation and spoilage of food, by trapping oxygen from getting to the food, allowing produce to be transported through a supply chain and sit on supermarket shelves for longer. However, there are several issues with this practice:
Firstly, plastic packaging could be significantly reduced if the supply chain was short circuited and produce was taken from farm to plate directly. This is a problem caused by the inherent difficulties associated with industrial food supply chains where food is transported, stored in warehouses or coolrooms, further transported, then placed on supermarket shelves. This whole process takes time, thus the need to slow the decaying process, thus the need to plastic wrap food.
Secondly, the AFPA’s argument that plastic packaging is a big win for food waste is somewhat disingenuous and overstated. The fact is plastic packaging has a small impact on supermarkets ability to limit food waste. Supermarkets provide limited access to data on food waste, but some estimate total food waste to be 1/3rd of all food on sale. If true, one can understand why these figures are not freely available. Although some food finds its way to Foodbanks, most ends up in landfill, along with its plastic packaging.
Thirdly, the plastic packaged produce may look fresh, but it’s an illusion! The moment our food is harvested or slaughtered for our consumption, it immediately starts to rot through enzymatic or microbial decay. This natural process is unstoppable, as all flavour and nutritional value depreciates with time.
It may look “fresh” but it’s not.
Eradicating plastic packaging from our food supply is unrealistic, particularly in regards to processed foods, where it is often required to keep it contaminate free and safe for human consumption. However there is much we can do to limit the current state of our unsustainable use of plastic packaging, particularly single use, and the impact it has on our food and the environment.
- Avoid supermarkets to bypass industrial supply chains and the supermarket’s need for plastic packaging
- Buy direct from producers wherever possible. Food will be fresh, flavoursome, nutritional and most likely not packaged in plastic
- Avoid small plastic packaged portions, if you have no alternative but to buy food packaged in plastic, go for the larger size and consume the rest over time. Small packaged portions = more plastic packaging + more $$$
- Join a community buying group. Buy in bulk and share
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
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- Department of Sustainability,Environment, Water, Population and Communities Waste and recycling inAustralia 2011 - http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/b4841c02-229b-4ff4-8b3b-ef9dd7601d34/files/waste-recycling2011.pdf
- J. R. Jambeck, R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T. R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan, K. L. Law, Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347, 768–771 (2015)