Image of easy swaps to make in the home  when trying to reduce plastic

Why we can't recycle our way out of this Plastic Crisis

 Plastic is a versatile material; it is the way that we use it that makes it wasteful. When properly used it is a durable and lifesaving material. It’s ability to preserve food, drugs, and other materials, helping prolong shelf life can arguably help reduce our carbon footprint.

It is when it is misused that plastic becomes problematic, single use in areas where there are easy alternatives. Just think of the millions of water bottles used daily around the world. 

The Ellen Macarthur foundation  predicts that at our present rate of use we will have more pieces of plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.

Just 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled and only 12% has been incinerated. The rest lies in landfills or has been dumped into oceans. We have no idea what problems we are producing by having plastic in landfills, what happens to these landfills in 100 years’ time? We do know that the leachate coming from landfills is a toxic mixture which needs to be carefully treated for disposal. The plastic in oceans can harm marine ecology, ensnaring fish and mammals with nylon rope, filling up stomachs when swallowed inadvertently and starving the marine creature, or as discussed more in our micro plastic blog - eventually disintegrating into millions of tiny pieces of micro plastics that remain forever in our seas. 

So, how do we move forward from here?

The answer is to make plastic sustainable. It’s obvious from the statistics above that we cannot simply recycle or reduce our way out of the plastic pollution crisis.

To do this the Ellen Macarthur foundation states that you need to have 3 objectives:

  1. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. This can be done in innovative ways and has already started with initiatives such as shampoo bars and not so innovative ways like the old fashioned string bag. But why can’t we get edible coverings to our cucumbers and broccoli sold in supermarkets? dissolvable packaging for more personal hygiene items? refill areas for dried foods in mainstream supermarkets making it more accessible to everyone? More access to water fountains? My daughter went to Glastonbury this year and I was so pleased to hear her report back that there were no single use water bottles and the whole area was supplied with numerous easy access water fountains – it’s all about the access.
  1. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable or compostable. There are some areas where stopping the use of plastic would be detrimental or as Ellen MacArthur call it ' unintended consequences'  such as some single use plastics in a medical setting . This area is challenging and innovation is needed – and it’s already there. Look at last years Earth Shot prize winners 2022 Notpla – this London based start up has created a packaging from seaweed. It’s natural and entirely biodegradable, can be used to create a range of packaging products such as a bubble to hold liquids, a coating for food containers and a paper for the cosmetic and fashion industry.  
  1. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment. Finally, any piece of plastic that we do elect to keep and use –  must be designed so that it is recyclable.

This can’t be done alone; governments need to agree on international policies and legislation. Without legislation companies are working on an uneven playing field where often the most polluting packaging is the cheapest.

The United Nations Environment Assembly started negotiations on a plastic policy in 2022 and are  preparing for their 6th round of talks in Kenya in February 2024, the aim is to complete negotiations by the end of 2024 with a global, legally binding plastics treaty.

In the interim, organizations small and large can start to follow the circular economy principles for plastic.

We at An’du are part of the first objective – to eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Shampoo bottles are not needed. There is a perfectly sustainable alternative with shampoo bars which works as well, if not better than bottled shampoo.

We might not be at the negotiating table, but we know what we would say if we were there!

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