There is a spectre haunting the world – the spectre of packaging. Plastic packaging to be precise. 70 million metric tons of it are produced each year. But a mere 14% is recycled. 9 Million tons drift into our rivers and oceans, destroying ecosystems, and strewing formerly pristine riverbanks and coasts with layer upon layer of the imperishable stuff. All of it will linger for hundreds and hundreds of years. The forecasts acknowledge this is just the tip of the iceberg. As developing nations grow and prosper, their rapidly expanding middle classes will join the throwaway and convenience centric culture of the richer parts of the world, a lifestyle reliant on enormous quantities of cheap and disposable plastic.
If business continues, as usual, these already dramatic numbers will bulge in our lifetimes. Scientists are warning that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Most people might be hazy on the exact numbers, but they are well aware that our plastic reliant culture is unsustainable. The risk posed to our planet and future generations are too serious to ignore. Fortunately, a consensus has emerged: things must change. No moment is more opportune than now.
Let’s rewind a moment. How did plastic come to dominate food packaging? Anyone born a few generations back might still remember a world that readily used oiled paper, paper bags, wooden crates, and straw or sawdust fillers. The plain reason for plastic’s dominance is that it is very good at what it does. This is why finding an alternative is so troublesome. Plastic protects food as it travels across continents, and keeps out humidity, light, and bacteria that make produce go bad. In fact, since plastic can triple the shelf life of some food, it has actually contributed to reducing food waste. Moreover plastic is transparent which allows consumers to see exactly what they are buying with their own eyes. Last and perhaps most importantly, plastic is relatively cheap and easy to make.
So plastic is both incredibly harmful and useful, there’s the rub. The most obvious solution would seem a shift from a take, make, waste model to a closed loop in a circular economy, where the majority of plastic comes from recycled sources and goes on to be either reused or recycled. Yet while more recycling is good, that alone won’t solve the problem. The recycling process consumes energy, water, and often requires the transport of materials over vast distances. And plastics made from oil and gas derivatives remain cheaper to produce from scratch than recycled. Besides, a significant portion of recycled plastics is used to make goods that eventually end up in the landfill.
The unfortunate truth is that recycling plastic is complicated. There are more than thirty different types of plastics used in food packaging, and only a handful of them can be entirely recycled. A recent study in the UK found that near half of the packaging used by major supermarkets cannot be easily recycled, and anywhere from 10% to 30% of the packaging was incorrectly labelled.
Supermarkets and grocers, large and small, have pledged to take steps toward a plastic-free, or at least reduced world. Most major supermarkets in the UK have vowed to stop selling 5p plastic bags in all their stores in the next years. Likewise, many chains have committed to reducing the use of plastic packaging in their own label products by up to 50% within the following five years. Despite these efforts, UK supermarkets continue to produce 810,000 tons of single-use plastic every year.
Fortunately, small grocers are often bolder than their larger cousins, and zero waste and packaging-free stores are popping up, not just in London, but also across the UK. Exact numbers are hard to come by but anywhere from 100 to 200 have recently set up shop.