Plastic, plastic use, and plastic pollution

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

plastic_waste1Plastic is pervasive nowadays and there is almost no place where you can look and plastic will not be staring you in the face in some for or the other. The computer keyboard, the case of the laptop, of the cellphone; all plastic, and that just for starters.

Since the real commercial production of plastic begun in the 1950s the world has produced more than eight billion tons of plastic which is about as much in weight as a billion elephants. Now let that sink in for a moment. That's an awful lot of the stuff. And that which has not been recycled or burned is in landfills and much of it, in fact, is floating around in the sea, causing problems to marine life, and in the end to us, who eat some of that marine life.

In 1950 the world produced around two million tons of plastic per year, while 65 years later, in 2015, it was 380 million tons in that year alone. Half of the so far produced plastic has been has been made in the last 13 years. Until 2015 only nine percent of this plastic has been recycled while twelve percent has been burned. The rest, alas, is still with us, predominately in landfills.

In some cases, let's face it, there, probably, is no real substitute for plastic and there is plastic and then there is plastic, as I keep saying. Instead of making it from petroleum there are other ways plastic materials could and can be made but even if the plastic is from a plant-based source it remains plastic and compostability is in most cases nothing more than greenwash.

On the other hand plastic can be extremely durable – aside from being light – and I say the can be because some of it is not made to be durable and that is due again to industry's design of needing things to break in order to sell more of the things to us.

It is the single use plastic that really is the greatest of problems, whether it comes in the form of the all present and all pervasive PET-bottle or the other plastic packaging such as fruit punnets, salad bowls, etc. ad infinitum.

What bugs me is that many of those things can be given an extended life if we but put our thinking cap on when we encounter them. Only recently I rescued the bases of some Sainsbury's sandwich trays (the kind you but ready-made sandwiches in for parties) which will become the trays for plant pots when raising seedlings.

I have found that the plastic that is used for those salad bowls with ready-made made salads from supermarkets, for instance, is a fairly flexible and also strong kind in that there is nothing preventing us from reusing those small and not so small bowls for a variety of uses in the kitchen, at table and otherwise in the home (and garden).

Those single-use plastic beer beakers (1pt), often made of a strong and flexible plastic, that are used at festivals and such like, instead of glasses, and then, obviously, being tossed thoughtless into the countryside, make for great propagators put upside down over a small plant pot for raising seedlings.

While, obviously, it would be good if we could get rid off all single-use plastic I, personally, doubt that that is going to happen soon and thus we ensure that we dispose of the stuff responsibly (for recycling ideally though we can but wonder how much recycling actually truly happens) or, maybe better still, must find a way of making use of those things by reusing, repurposing and upcycling them in other ways, stretching their lifespans for as far as possible.

In the case of plastic drinks bottles, be it water or other, I would advocate the introduction of a deposit, as it is done in some countries already, and the use of reverse vending machines where such bottles can be returned to and the deposit given to whoever returns them.

Bottled water is a scam anyway as most of the water is not “spring water” or “mineral water” but simply ordinary, often tap, water filled into bottles and sold at a huge profit. In most places in Europe, bar a couple of countries, the local tap water is better than any bottled water. The US still has a problem despite considering itself to be such a great advanced nation. In some places the municipal water supply there is as bad, sometimes even worse, than that in many a city in the Third World.

The problem nowadays though is also that other drinks and products that used to be packaged in glass come now in plastic bottles and jars, such as wine, spirits, peanut butter, etc. The claim is that this is being done to reduce the impact on the environment as glass is heavier than plastic and thus transportation requires more fuel. Come on, let's be honest dearest people. It is cheaper and the environmental claim is but hogwash or should we better call it greenwash. Fact is that plastic bottles and jars are cheaper than glass and that they are cheaper to transport than glass. Hence the move to more and more plastic.

As consumer we are facing a dilemma when it comes to the above, that is to say drinks and produce in plastic jars, let's not even talk about fruit and vegetables packages in unnecessary plastic (wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry the other day when I saw at ALDI apples packaged in the kind of tube in which tennis balls are sold) as in the great majority of cases we do not have an alternative. It was Sainsbury's a couple of years ago that started the trend of peanut butter in plastic jars and now almost every producer of peanut butter has followed suit.

Wines and spirits, at least those at the lower end of the price scale, now also come in plastic, rather than glass, in our supermarkets and the letters WTF very much come to mind with regards to that.

So, instead of working to reduce the problem industry and supermarkets actually perpetuate the problem by introducing more and more plastic packaging. Get rid off the plastic carrier bag, to some degree, and they just get some more plastic in that you can't avoid, more or less. Sometimes I do wonder whether they actually want to help or not, and it looks more like that they do not want to help at all. Plastic is cheaper to use than glass and much cheaper to ship as it is lighter and there are no breakages. It's all down to money yet again. But where does that leave us, as consumer, who are left without an alternative and choice often?

© 2017