BREAKING: Plastic found to be useful

This from the BBC is a surprisingly balanced and informative article on plastic use:

Located in the south Atlantic, on the fringes of the Antarctic, it is nearly 1,000 miles (1,500km) from the nearest major human settlement. Yet even here Waluda, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey, is finding worrying signs of our throw-away attitude towards plastic. Regularly she finds seals entangled in this debris or albatross chicks coughing up bits of plastic film.

Of course, the BBC fails to acknowledge that almost all the plastic in the ocean comes from a handful of rivers in Africa and Asia: “our” throw-away attitude seems to belong to people quite different from me. But this aside, the BBC does a reasonable job of looking at the costs of foisting changes on western societies and highlights some of the issues the dim middle classes might have overlooked in their campaigns. For example:

While the cost of producing bottles can vary depending on the raw material and energy prices at the time, it is generally not that much more expensive to produce a glass bottle versus one made from PET – about $0.01 more, according to some analysis.

However, when manufacturers start transporting produce in glass bottles, costs start to rise. A 330ml plastic soft drink bottle contains around 18 grams of material while a glass bottle can weigh between 190g and 250g. Transporting drinks in the heavier containers requires 40% more energy, producing more polluting carbon dioxide as they do and increasing transport costs by up to five times per bottle.

“In many cases plastics are actually better for the environment than the alternatives,” explains Selke. “It is surprising until you look closely at it.”

There’s also the problem that glass breaks, meaning it needs extra protection.

A report by the American Chemistry Council and environmental accounting firm Trucost estimates that the environmental costs – which places a value on dealing with the pollution generated by a product – would be five times higher if the soft drinks industry used alternative packaging like glass, tin or aluminium instead of plastic. As governments seek to penalise polluting companies with carbon taxes and levies, these costs may be passed onto consumers.

“Food costs are going to increase – there can be no doubt about that,” says Dick Searle, chief executive of the British Packaging Federation, which represents the industry in the UK.

I shouldn’t imagine this worries the hand-wringing middle class evangelists in London one jot. As we saw with carrier bags, their disdainful dismissal of increased costs to the poorest in society would make a 17th century French courtier blush.

There are some, however, who warn that abandoning plastic after nearly 70 years of using it to package our food could have other far more costly, unintended consequences.

What may at first appear to be a wasteful plastic bag wrapped around your cucumber, for example, is actually a sophisticated tool for increasing the shelf-life of your food. Years of research have allowed plastics to push the time food lasts for from days to weeks.

“I think people underestimate the benefits of plastics in reducing food waste,” says Anthony Bull, professor of chemistry and director of The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.

The claim that food and logisitics companies, whose margins are razor thin, waste money on unnecessary packaging was always ludicrous.

The shrink wrap used on cucumbers for instance, can more than double the length of time the vegetable can last, allowing it to be kept for up to 15 days in the fridge and cutting food waste in half. An unwrapped cucumber would last just two days at room temperature and 9 days if refrigerated.

Beef bought in polystyrene foam trays covered with plastic film will generally last between three and seven days. However if it is vacuum-packed in multilayer plastic, it can be kept for up to 45 days without spoiling. Environmental accounting firm Trucost estimate that vacuum-packing sirloin steak can cut food waste almost in half compared to conventional plastic.

Much of the food we now buy in supermarkets comes tightly wrapped in sealed plastic films and protective trays. This keeps fresh meat in an oxygen-free atmosphere, helping to prevent it from spoiling. Delicate fruit and vegetables are also kept safe from bumps that can degrade them, meaning they’re more likely to be sold. Putting grapes in their own individual plastic boxes has been found to cut food waste by 75%.

So packaging on food serves a purpose, eh? Who knew? Well, P.J. O’Rourke for  a  start: in one of his books he writes about how some researcher excavated landfills in both the USA and Mexico and found while Mexicans use about half as much packaging as Americans, they throw away twice as much food.

Plastic wrapping can also keep fruit and vegetables in their own little microclimates – known in the industry as modified atmosphere packaging – which can help to prevent them from ripening too quicky.

It’s almost as if the companies shipping fruit around the world know more about packaging than self-righteous housewives in Islington, isn’t it?

While some believe that single-use plastic packaging has actually led to an increase in the amount of food we throw away by encouraging a culture of disposability, many in the plastics industry argue that without plastic packaging, the cost of food waste could rise.

Who to believe? An industry which can demonstrate the utility of its products or new-age evangelists using woolly terms like “culture of disposability”?

In this light, it might not make sense to ban plastics altogether but instead make plastics better.

“Rather than going back, it is perhaps more useful to look at innovation,” says Eliot Whittington. “There are more and more companies that are reinventing plastics with additives that help them break down or making plastics that are biodegradable.”

Another bioplastics leader is Coca-Cola, which two years ago launched the PlantBottle, a PET partially made with Brazilian sugarcane.

A burger box made from sugarcane for instance, is almost twice as expensive as one made from polystyrene. A biodegradable takeaway fork made from plant starch costs 3.5 times more than a basic white plastic one.

So is tearing down thousands of square kilometres of Brazilian rainforest in order to grow this sugarcane better for the planet than simply sticking with plastic? Or don’t we worry where the stuff comes from, just how we dispose of it?

But Anthony Bull sees other problems with the widespread use of biodegradable packaging.

“It treats the symptoms, not the disease,” he says. “If the disease is our throw-away society, making packaging biodegradable only encourages people to throw more away.”

Instead, he suggests another solution: use more plastic.

Heh. Good lad.

And as many countries seek to introduce new laws that will put new levies on plastic bags and ban certain types of single use packaging, refillable and reusable options may become more attractive.

For Claire Waluda, whose team is monitoring the levels of plastic waste in South Georgia, the price of making these changes is one worth paying.

“We are seeing wandering albatross parents feeding plastic to their chicks,” she says. “Anything that can reduce the amount of plastic debris in the environment is a step in the right direction.”

And even if it doesn’t – and it won’t – you have signalled your virtue. Might I suggest you start attending church or, if you’re really concerned about plastic, have a word with the Africans and Asians who are chucking it into their rivers? Or does your religion not work that way?

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11 thoughts on “BREAKING: Plastic found to be useful

  1. “Might I suggest you start attending church or, if you’re really concerned about plastic, have a word with the Africans and Asians who are chucking it into their rivers? Or does your religion not work that way?”

    Of course not, telling some non-white folks not to do something would be waaciist! so she won’t even contemplate that, even if the idea had even fleetingly crossed her mind.

  2. I noticed that when I was in the UK you no longer get a light cheap bag at the shop to carry your purchases. The only type offered much heavier ones that, I imagine, they believed would be reused many times.

    I used it once and threw it away.

  3. I’d also throw away twice as much food if I lived in Mexico.

  4. They’ve just banned plastic bags round my way. Telly says Coles & Woolies will net like $240 million annually: no wonder they’re so keen on environmentalism!

    I look forward to my rates going up now that the council will have to buy more plastic bags for dog shit – or am I supposed to use reusable ones for that too?

  5. They’ve just introduced the plastic bag tax here (€0.05 +19% VAT as you ask)…

    Stupid expats think it is wonderful – they want the ‘free’ bags in the fruit ‘n’ veg departments banned next… oh and plastic drinking straws of course…


  6. I’d also throw away twice as much food if I lived in Mexico

    LOL, me too. Thanks for the laugh!

  7. While some believe that single-use plastic packaging has actually led to an increase in the amount of food we throw away by encouraging a culture of disposability, many in the plastics industry argue that without plastic packaging, the cost of food waste could rise.

  8. Kept reading and by the time I’d got here, I’d forgotten what I was going to say.

  9. Yes! Ban single use plastic bags and feel virtuous. Then instead of using those single use plastic bags, you can buy purpose made plastic bag bin liners and carry them home in your hand knitted, organic, fair trade bag to line a bin and use once …

    Please correct me and explain the logic of that as I can’t see much difference in using a single use carrier bag to line a bin and a plastic bag without handles to line a bin. I’m thick like that.

  10. As India, and possibly other countries, have started using plastic waste in road construction and repair, it appears that people aren’t talking to each other. In Turkey, some years ago, we bought several patterned, washable, table cloths which were made from recycled plastic milk bottles. Last year, couldn’t find any. What happened? There is the technology to reuse waste plastic but perhaps those in power prefer to use the horror of plastic islands into scaring us into a path which gives them shedloads of money.
    Saying that, go to a beach bbq in Hong Kong and you will often see the group collect all the detritus and place it in a plastic bag. The nominated person then ignores the rubbish bins and walks into the sea, which is closer. The bag is held under water until it loses it’s buoyancy, when it is allowed to sink. Job done, the group make their way home. There was a song about plastic bag slicks in the 80’s. Perhaps they should reissue it?

  11. Who will buy the unwrapped fruit and veg. after noon and after it has been prodded, poked and squeezed by many, many prospective purchasers?
    And at the end of that day the shop would not even care give the contaminated stuff away.

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