Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Problem With Plastic

I read quite a few simplicity and ‘green’ blogs and one thing that I’ve noticed is the number of people who are trying hard to eliminate any kind of plastic from their lives. I guess I must be the odd one out, because I don’t have a problem with plastic per se.

The way I see it is that plastic, polythene and other polymer based substances aren’t necessarily bad things - they have their place in our modern society and I’m perfectly happy to use my plastic watering-can, bucket, food storage boxes, garden trug and other bits and pieces and I realise that my telephone is made mostly of plastic, my laptop contains a good deal of it, as does my fridge and a whole host of other useful items. What I’m not happy with is the way in which so many people treat plastics.

It seems to me that the majority still view plastic as something that’s easily disposable. It’s cheap so they’re not losing much when they open the bin and dump it in. Every day,

Apparently, last year 17.5 billion plastic bags were given away by supermarkets here in the UK, equating to 290 bags per person or more than 5 ½ bags for each of us every single day. What on earth are we doing with all those bags?

Also, of the total amount of plastic produced here - around 4.7 million tonnes of it - 35% was produced for packaging alone! That’s more than 1.6 million tonnes of plastic packaging!

When you consider that only around 7% of that total was actually recycled, it’s no wonder our landfills are overflowing with the stuff, not to mention the amount of plastic that’s ‘disposed of’ in the countryside and on our streets.

Even our oceans aren’t free of the stuff. On a world basis, it’s estimated that around 46,000 plastic objects are floating within every square mile! Yepp, shocking isn’t it? Not only are our beaches being swamped with plastic debris washed up by the tides, but marine life is suffering through our selfish abuse of our own ability to create new substances. In fact, 170 different species of marine wildlife have been reported to have been fatally injured through mistaking plastic for food. Here in the UK an average of 2 plastic items can be found on every square meter of beach, either washed up or left behind by visitors.

Plastic’s durable because it doesn’t decompose quickly and therein lies the problem. Because it’s also cheap to produce and therefore acquire, it’s all too easy to just get rid of it again without a thought to where it’ll go or what will happen to it.

Thankfully, things are gradually improving. The government have given stores until next spring to reduce the number of plastic carrier bags they hand out by at least 70% or they’ll introduce a forced fee per bag with the income going to environmental projects (or so they say). Marks & Spencer have voluntarily introduced a 5p charge per bag and already the number of bags they’re handing out has been reduced by 80%, proving that if people have to part with their money for something, they’re more likely to think twice about it. Perhaps the problem with plastic is that it’s simply too cheap?

When you can buy a bucket for £1.99, it doesn’t hurt much to just ‘chuck it’ and buy a new one when the original’s looking past its best or no longer matches the décor, whereas if the same bucket cost £10, I’m sure far more people would think twice.

One of my pet peeves is the amount of plastic that supermarkets use for packaging. I bought two small pork chops a few days ago that were packed in a relatively large plastic tray that was again covered with a sturdy plastic film. Now I realise that, unlike the local butcher, they need to pre-pack their meat while leaving the contents visible but the plastic tray was far larger than it needed to be; at least four, maybe even five, chops would have fitted into it. What a waste!

That’s the last time I buy ‘small’ from the supermarket. I prefer to buy my meat from the butcher anyway, but sometimes I have no choice. From now on, when the supermarket’s my only option I shall buy in bulk. Half a dozen chops, chicken breasts or pieces of steak packed in one piece of plastic has to be better than the same packed in three although I know I still won’t be entirely happy about opening it, dividing the contents for freezing, and then discarding the plastic. Some I can reuse to at least extend their life a little but not all of them. The butcher, on the other hand, wraps his meat in a small piece of plastic film and then greaseproof paper - very little packaging in comparison.

Any plastic carrier bags that come into the house are reused as bin liners - the council still prefers us to wrap our waste rather than dump it straight into the bin (health & safety) and I’m blowed if I’m buying special bin liners! I have a friend who only ever uses scented bin-liners but throws her carrier bags straight into the bin. What, I ask you, is the point?

As I said, plastic is here to stay and has its place in our lives - it’s the way in which we use it that I have a problem with.

Sharon J


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Frugal Trenches said...

I think you are right it is about a balance. I do try to reduce my plastic and in truth don't use much - I have a water bottle I use instead of constantly buying new water bottles, I buy most of my veggies and fruit from a family run shop that doesn't give out bags, I use my plastic bags over and over again and use them for rubbish (therefor don't have to purchase bin bags!)
I think life is about a balance in all respects. The problems have been because there has been no balance people have used in excess without thought!

Frugal Trenches said...

p.s. I so love your blog :)

p.p.s. sorry about the spelling mistakes above, my keyboard is sticky today!!

Anonymous said...

good post sharon
-I have a few things, washing basket, plastic tubs etc around the home and i figured as long as i don't throw them away, just keep using them and using them it'll be ok. I'll just make better informed choices if i ever need to buy anything from now on.
-We have to use bags in our bin so i buy recycled ones and limit the amount i use
-carrier bags have become extinct in our house, i've even put a post it note on the back door reminding people to take a bag with them, as its easy to forget

Sharon J said...

Frugal Trenches. I totally agree re balance in life.

In Norway they have a saying that roughly translated means "you can have anything or do anything you want but only if it's within reason".

Glad you enjoy the blog. It makes writing it so much more worthwhile :)

MoveToPortual. I was going to buy a tall, slim bin but when I realised I'd need special bags, decided against it and bought a smaller pedal bin instead. I also find that having a small bin means I'm more aware of how much rubbish I'm generating.

Louise said...

Good idea about making plastic products more costly but too many people would be up in arms if that happened.

Gavin said...

Hi Sharon. You are spot on with this post. Plastic in some forms have good uses as long as they can be recycled upon disposal. Shopping bags are in the process of being banned in South Australia (legislation in place), with a similar scheme proposed in my state of Victoria. But unfortunately the other states were not willing to compromise so no bans are planned. Kim always says that she finds it hard to believe that we are all one county (she is from the UK originally). With no federal gov intervention likely, it looks like the bag is here to stay in most of Australia for a while to come.

Having said that, the vast majority of our waste is now non-recyclable plastic, with most of it being food packaging. Such a waste!

We converted over to reusable shopping bags years ago, but sometimes even with our bags at the front of the conveyor infront of our groceries, the checkout chick still starts to load up our goods into the flimsy thin bags. I would hate to think how many times I have received the stare when I have asked her/him to repack into my own bags! They just don't think.

Gavin said...
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Gavin said...
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Gavin said...

Sorry about all the comments. My iPod touch had a gremlin and decided to lock up on me!

Sharon J said...

Louise. Yes, I think you're right there. People tend to want everything as cheap as possible these days and that's probably so as they can dispose of it without any financial guilt.

Gavin. It is a bit odd that Australia seems to have lots of different 'rules' depending on where in the country you are.

I can imagine the look the check-out girls give you. They're probably so used to packing plastic carrier bags that they do it mindlessly. It must be rather like working on a factory production line I suppose.

No worries about the comments :)

Anonymous said...

Your right Sharon.. it's how we use it. I still have some plastic items around the house and continue to use them. I just try wherever I can to purchase only when necessary and look for more durable alternatives if it's something that would mean I'm buying plastic on a regular.

Hear hear for the supermarket packaging!

Chris said...

Hi! Somebody must have been having my share of plastic bags for a very long time as I have a cotton bag with me all the time and cannot recall the last time I had to have a shop bag! Have my "bags for life" for the little bit of supermarket shopping I need to do!

Plastic has to be part of my life! Medical supplies are a huge part of my life - all plastic and I have to use it! No choice - that or die! As much as I can is reccyled but a large percentage has to go in the clinical waste bags which yes you've guessed it are plastic!

Any rubbish is recycled where possible but there are some things which are not suitable or nbot yet accepted by our Council recycling scheme.

I was reading on a cereal box at my parents recently that if every customer recycled the box of this particualr cereal alone it was the equiv of 101 double decker buses of cardboard in a year - and I have a strong feeling a lot of that ends of in landfill because people cannot be "bothered" or don't know as yet the impact that it has on the world to just throw it away!

Thanks as ever for the thoughts here!


Sharon J said...

apieceofwood. There are some very cheap and nasty disposable plastic products about, that's true, and I'd also much rather choose durability over that too.

Chris. I hear you on the meds. I also create huge amounts of waste, a lot of which is plastic and have no choice but to 'dump' it. Feed bags, syringes, giving sets, fluid dishes, forceps, bottles... it's awful really. In fact, I think there may well be a blog post coming on about this!

The cereal box info was interesting but while it's good they're trying to make people aware, why not just take away the cardboard packaging? I've never understood why we have to buy bags of stuff in boxes.