What is wrong with plastic?

It's not a simple or easy question; what is wrong with plastic? But we're here to try and help you delve into the complex answer?


Pre Covid (yes, those distant days) my husband and I did our supermarket shop at the same time each week. We had a routine, I had the shopping list, he had the trolley, for efficiency's sake we split up then regrouped at appointed places in the shop, then finally met at the checkout. 
One week we both arrived at the checkout with the same product, different brands.  My choice came in a liquid bottle form made from 100% recycled plastic, my husband’s was a powdered form in a cardboard box because - and I quote – “I thought that you were trying to cut back on plastic”. We could not resolve the problem at the checkout and ended up buying both. 

But which one is better? Is a bottle made from 100% recycled plastic (which itself can be recycled) any better or worse than a cardboard box? After researching the issue, the answer we came to is that the cardboard is the more environmentally friendly of the two.

plastic mountain on westminster
Read on to find out why.

Plastic has been found in the remotest parts of our oceans, from the deepest seabed on Earth to the Artic Sea ice. 59 billion pieces of single use plastic packaging leave supermarket shelves each year (1) and every minute an equivalent of a truck load of plastic is tipped into our oceans. Large pieces ensnare the oceans wildlife while smaller microplastics are entering the food chain - who knows ultimately what damage this will do.  
UK figures make for sad reading, a massive 1.8 million kilos of UK plastic waste is dumped on other countries every single day (2).

In 2018 the decision by China to ban imports of certain types of recycling waste including plastic resulted in UK exports to China falling by almost 90%, making the most important export destinations Malaysia (17%), Turkey (13%), Indonesia (12%) and China/ Hong Kong (9%) (3). This changed over time and by 2020 Turkey was taking 30% of our plastic waste. But Turkey’s recycling rate is about 12% (4) which means that UK plastic is being dumped in landfill or roadsides, burned in inefficient incinerators, or discharged straight into the sea. UK rules state that plastic waste should not be exported to countries unless it is going to be recycled, so as a country, we are obviously not following our own rules.
Earlier this year, Turkey said that it would ban certain plastic imports - hopefully this will focus our endeavours to attempt to solve our own plastic problem within our own shores. The distasteful ‘out of sight out of mind’ philosophy, exporting our plastic waste to poorer countries was never going to be a long-term solution to our plastic crisis.

Why don’t we recycle our own plastic?
Even if it is recycled back into more plastic, Greenpeace are cautious about recycling being the panacea to our plastic problems. In their post they point out that you can only recycle plastic a certain number of times and that the plastic we recycle uses up a lot of energy resources (5). Also, it is estimated that the UK recycles only between 45-50% of the plastic waste that it produces (6).

Why not incinerate it?
It has been proposed that efficiently incinerating plastic while collecting the energy produced is a good use of plastic (7). This however is at odds with the government and such bodies as the Ellen Mcarthy Foundation who support what is called the circular economy. The circular economy advises us that products at the end of their life still have their use. The EU’s objections to incineration include air quality - releasing harmful dioxins from inefficient incinerators (although modern incinerators are said to have solved this problem). Climate change is another obvious objection to incineration, after coal, incinerators generate the most CO2 . Environmental groups also fear that if the UK builds new incinerators to cope with the stockpile created by China and now Turkey’s rejection of waste plastic, this will lock in demand for burning more.

To recap, exporting, recycling, or incinerating as suggested solutions to our plastic crisis all have major drawbacks and are not long-term term viable options.

So – how about this for an idea?

Don’t buy plastic in the first place!!

If we want our next generation of children to swim in crystal clear waters and our sea life not to live on a diet of microplastics, the answer is to try and NOT purchase plastic in whatever form. The circular economy makes sense environmentally, using and / or recycling what is already out there but producing more plastic does not.

At An’du our bars and packaging are 100% plastic free. Our packaging dyes are vegetable based allowing for a compostable or recyclable solution.

It’s hard to imagine that we can contribute to reducing the daunting figure of 1.8 million kilos of UK plastic waste being dumped on other countries every day, but I like to think of it in reverse, if I contributed to the 1.8 kilo then I too can help reduce it.

An’du - to row gently against the tide.
Written by Dr Tina Grayson

1. https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/whats-answer-plastic-problem

2. https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/wasteminster-greenpeace-dumps-625kg-of-plastic-waste-at-the-prime...

3. https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary

4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/19/turkey-to-ban-plastic-waste-imports

5. https://www.greapeace.org.uk/news/what-answer-plastic/problem  

6. https://www.recyclingbins.co.uk/recycling-facts

7. https://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2018/06/Save-the-oceans.pdf
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