Breaking the single-use cycle

With the welcoming in of the New Year humanity has entered the final decade where there is still time left to take meaningful action and undo the environmental damage caused by our consumerist habits.

Breaking the single-use cycle

With the world witnessing the devastation caused by the Australian wildfires, the message seems to have hit home – this crisis is real, and time is running out to reverse course.

In the UK, environmental organisations are continuing their campaign to eliminate single-use plastics. However, if we are to truly untangle ourselves from our single-use ways, then it is time for the mixed and often misleading messages regarding alternative products and materials to stop. It is time to call for truth and honesty.

One critical truth is that the impact of single-use plastics on the natural world cannot be solved by substituting one single-use material for another. The fundamental issue behind the plastics crisis is arguably not the material itself, but rather that the profitability of our economic system is determined by the amount consumers consume. 

Put simply, the more product consumers buy, use and then discard, and the speed at which this process happens, the more money our economy makes and the richer the return to investors. This linear cycle of production, use and disposal must be radically changed if the single-use crisis is to be truly solved. 

Yet most of today’s ‘environmentally friendly’ alternatives to plastics do very little to address this fundamental issue. Rather, the vast majority encourage consumers to consume just as before, believing that their consumption no longer harms the environment. This is not the case. Many of the most heavily advertised alternatives are still single-use and not actually plastic-free.

For example, the common rhetoric surrounding compostable packaging made from PLA is that this material is a viable solution because it is plastic-free. The truth is that these materials are still single-use and still plastic. Plastics are made from polymers which can be extracted from a wide variety of different materials, from crude oil (the raw material for traditional plastics) to silk, wool, amber, rubber, starch and cellulose. 

Compostable plastics are made from naturally occurring polymers such as starch or cellulose, and it is at this point confusion is created. Though a natural polymer is used, the compostable plastic material is still man-made in a laboratory via a chemical reaction, in the same way, traditional plastics are made. The lack of viable composting infrastructure in the UK also means that most compostable products are used in a single-use way and can cause just as much environmental damage as traditional plastics if disposed of incorrectly.

Biodegradable alternatives are another popular ‘solution’ to single-use plastics because the term itself strongly suggests that the material will just disappear after use. However, ‘biodegradable’ is, unfortunately, one of the most misleading terms used to promote products as being better for the environment. 

A biodegradable material does have the ability to break down over time but what is rarely understood is how long the material will take to break down, the environmental conditions required for this process, and critically what the material will break down into. Many biodegradable materials require very specific, often man-made conditions to break down and release chemical pollutants into the environment as they decompose.

Greenpeace recently called out a number of leading supermarkets, fast food and coffee retailers such as Pret a Manger for their switch to compostable products, and McDonald’s for their adoption of paper-based single-use products rather than reusables. Greenpeace argues that the promotion of such alternatives as environmentally friendly solutions are misleading consumers.

So, what is the solution? There is a tremendous need for retailers to encourage behaviour change and material innovation. More needs to be done to encourage consumers to adopt reusable and refillable packaging products because substituting one single-use material for another will not solve the plastics crisis.

Waitrose & Partners recently took the bold decision to remove all paper cups from their stores.  Putting the environment ahead of coffee sales, Waitrose shoppers must now remember their reusable cup or go without their coffee. Waitrose & Partners have continued to shift consumer behaviour by partnering with Ecover to successfully trial refillable packaging options for laundry detergents and washing up liquids. 

Pushing the boundary of material innovation, Mars and Nestlé have teamed up with recycling technology partners to explore the potential of chemical recycling for plastics. This new recycling technique allows plastics of all colours and grades to be broken down into their molecular compounds. This innovation has the potential to ensure that all plastics can be recycled indefinitely back into high-grade products.

Untangling ourselves from single-use materials and products will require multiple, different solutions. However, true and honest solutions must share a common understanding and recognition that the underlying problem is our linear approach to consumption. To break this single-use cycle, solutions need to be circular in nature, remain in use for longer and have the potential for continuous recyclability.

Jo Gilroy

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: behaviour change | packaging | Plastics | technology | waste management
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