Will we ever kick our plastic addiction?

Is it finally going to happen? Will single-use plastic finally disappear from our landscape?

I don’t know about you, but I find the amount of plastic rubbish overwhelming and disturbing, whether out in nature, on the side of roads or in towns & cities. Hence, the headline of the Guardian article from Tuesday made me feel hopeful that this could change soon. But why is this process taking so long, why is the Department of Environment & Climate Change not more decisive? And why is Thérèse Coffey choosing her words so carefully – “Single-use plastic plates, cutlery, balloon sticks and expanded and extruded polystyrene cups COULD all now be phased out in a bid to reduce plastic pollution.” COULD.

How does the UK stack up in comparison?

I took a quick look across the Channel to see what our European neighbours are up to in that regard. The UK government at the time banned single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds in 2020. That’s all very good, but looking a little closer, why wasn’t that decision expanded to include cutlery, plates and polystyrene cups? A missed opportunity? The EU stopped the production and distribution of single-use plastic straws, stirrers, balloon sticks and cotton buds in July 2021 – so slightly behind us. However, that ban also stretched across the said cutlery, plates and “to-go” cups made of polystyrene. Up to that point of plastic restriction, 140,000 polystyrene cups ended up in landfills in Germany alone. Every hour.

Considering that plastic and polystyrene doesn’t just disappear – it only breaks down into smaller pieces and forms a serious environmental liability for countless generations to come, don’t we owe it to them, our environment (and ourselves) to exhibit more determination?

Why can’t we ‘just get on’ with banning single-use plastic?

Playing the devil’s advocate, do we need to consider businesses specialising in the manufacturing of single-use plastics in the UK? One would assume the answer is no, and most of them are produced in China, Germany and the USA anyway. Surely, they must realise that this Blockbusters-moment has been on the horizon for years. But assumption is the mother of misconceptions. Let’s take the USA as an example. The country has more than 880 plastic and resin manufacturing companies. When the State of New York imposed a single-use plastic ban across most areas of daily life in August 2020, it faced lawsuits and opposition, even from consumers. Seventeen US states have policies against such a ban “due to the potential for severe economic hardship to plastic and recycling companies.”

What are the alternatives?

According to education.nationalgeographic.org, the production of recyclable high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic articles uses resources such as petroleum, but it results in less (!) carbon emissions, harmful by-products and waste than cotton or paper for bag production, for instance. So, as far as your shopping bag goes, the answer is to, quite literally, use it to death. If a shopping bag is reused about 50 times, you can throw it away with a clear conscience.

As for plastics used for food & drink consumption, we should stay clear anyway. Take your takeaway containers from your favourite eat-out restaurant, or plastic cutlery. These “everyday items” are most likely containing harmful bioactive chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA), which can leach into your food & drink on contact (even more so if microwaved!) interfering with hormone regulation and production in the human body messing with thyroid gland’s hormonal pathways, just to name one adverse effect. Another commonly found chemical in single-use plastics is Bisphenol S (BPS), similar in molecular structure to BPA that mostly affects aquatic animals. So, the answer to how to stay clear from Bisphenols and their known risks is the same as with your shopping bags: use, reuse, and then some more. Just not with single use plastics. Why not carry a cheap set of stainless-steel cutlery with you? You can ask your preferred takeaway restaurant to ditch their plastic containers in favour of eco-friendly, sustainable replacements. There are literally hundreds out there as this website demonstrates - https://singleusealternatives.co.uk/product-category/food-containers/.

Will we ever kick the plastic habit?

Honest answer: not for the foreseeable future. Even if the government follows through with the intent to introduce the ban, certain applications will be exempt, such as in keeping certain foods fresh, e.g., fish and meats. Our disposition to food preparation has changed so much over the past four decades. Whereas we used to go to the butcher and greengrocer to buy and then prepare our fresh food in bulk at home, we now shop in supermarkets with shelves packed with portioned and easy-to-prepare options, much of it for “on the go”. And with that shift in food customs came a huge rise in food packaging production. And, unfortunately, there are no cheap and viable alternatives to keeping meat, fish, and even fruit and vegetables fresh. The only thing we can do individually – you may have already guessed it – is to change our eating habits to kick the plastic habit.

Gérard Fabrice Guminski 14/12/2022

Picture "Plastic-Trash-Philippines" courtesy of aboutmanchester.co.uk

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