Plastic bottles on the production line.

Could Removing Plastic Packaging Do More Harm Than Good?

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Whilst everyone agrees that plastic waste is not a good thing, it may be worth remembering that there are indeed many virtues to the use of plastic in packaging, which cannot be readily dismissed. By all means, it is incumbent upon the plastic producers to help overcome the problems associated with waste in the world, it has to be realised that it will no doubt call for substantial lifestyle changes on behalf of everyone.

Plastic bottles on the production line.

Theresa May recently announced the ‘war on plastic waste’ and has proposed policies such as plastic-free aisles in supermarkets and higher taxes on takeaway containers. The elimination of avoidable plastic waste was publicised by the Prime Minister; she went on to promise how within 25 years, the UK would lead internationally on environmental issues. The intentions of the conservative party and demands of the environmental plan should be carefully considered and here is why:

Plastic packaging is currently used for the many benefits it provides, and if it is removed from stores, the environment could once again be put under pressure. Action taken to tackle the enormous volume of waste produced on a daily basis is vital, and both businesses and consumers are rightly concerned but, have the alternatives been diplomatically considered?

Increasing the understanding of the issue, through education, investment and development of the recycling infrastructure and technologies – the environmental harm will be reduced.

 

Footprint

Plastic is lightweight, durable and contrary to cardboard or paper alternatives, is considerably less energy intensive to make. Plastic continues to be seen as a poor choice for a packaging material, but it is common knowledge that it doesn’t rot and is extremely sturdy. When compared to the alternative of cardboard, which uses a substantial amount more energy to make, from cutting down trees, transporting the extreme weight, crushing and mixing the wood into a pulp and them pressing into shape, the manufacturing process of plastic has a much lower C02 pollution level compared to paper or cardboard. A recent statement from Plastics Europe confirmed this finding: ‘Only 1.5% of all oil and gas consumed in Europe is used as a raw material to produce plastic packaging, whereas 90% of it is used for heating, transportation and energy generation. If food was packed using other materials than plastics, the related energy consumption would double, and greenhouse gas emissions would nearly triple. This would also be accompanied by a 360% increase in the weight of the packaging’.

 

Shelf-Life

One of the fundamental benefits of plastic packaging is not that it offers protection for the enclosed goods, but that it increases the shelf-life. For some edible items, the increase can be as much as three times as long when compared to an item that isn’t packaged using shrink wrapping machinery. The plastic barrier ensures the food doesn’t come into contact with any external contaminants and prevents the spreading of germs, which maintains the foods taste and appearance. By reducing the volume of contaminants reaching the food, the wastage is reduced, as the food remains fresh for much longer.

 

Cost of Alternatives

Riverford, the organic vegetable and meat subscription scheme, has recently invested and extensively researched their company’s carbon footprint. The suggestions from the study may come as a surprise to many consumers and businesses who think they are being more environmentally-friendly with their plastic-free choices. Guy Watson, the owner of the business, said ‘despairs of getting householders to understand the true environmental cost of paper goods and one can only sympathise as he demands government action to force suppliers to recognise and account for the full cost of packaging.’ The studies conducted by the company discovered that ‘85% of our packaging footprint is made up of paper and cardboard yet our customers are very happy with this packaging; virtually all negative comments on packaging relate to plastic punnets and bags which contribute only 8% to the footprint’.

The education and deeper understanding the true cost of the alternatives to plastic must carefully be considered and critically evaluated before any drastic changes in the packaging industry occur.

 

Solutions

Currently, many forms of plastic are considered single-use but plastic packaging, if correctly collected, sorted and reused, has a lifetime that is much longer than other materials. Investing in innovative technology and design, as well as improving the recycling infrastructure is vital to the recovery of this valuable resource. Without plastic, it is likely that there will be a much shorter shelf-life for food and drink products which will result in a much greater level of food wasted and an increase in C02 pollution, issues which were once resolved with the use of plastic.


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