Is getting rid of single use plastics the right thing to do? Or, like so many other sustainability issues, is it less cut and dry? 

Eco Warrior

Last week I had an email from a friend asking if I would join her for some direct environmental action? Well I’m not good with heights and chains would chaff a bit if I had to be attached to a bulldozer for too long but it turned out that she was helping the fight against plastics by unwrapping goods in a shop and leaving the plastic packaging for the shop to deal with. 

Just as I was getting ready to charge down there and save the planet, my rational brain kicked in and made me pause. How was I going to get there in time to join in? What was I going to buy? Was unwrapping it going to mean I’d have to take something with me to protect it. Were the shop going to recycle the plastic or just throw it away. Did I need anything from the shop?

Bit of a conundrum so I bailed out. However, it made me try to think of if there are arguments to keep some single use plastics.

Milk bottle battles

As an example, let’s look at something that for obvious reasons wasn’t unwrapped by my friend and cohorts the other day – the plastic milk bottle. Since 1975 the amount of milk sold in glass bottles has reduced by over 90% and the main culprit is the high density polyethylene (HDPE) jug style bottle with its convenient carry handle. These have a number of benefits over glass bottles:

  • They use about the 1/6thof the energy to produce compared to similar sized glass bottles
  • They are lighter (95%) and so use less energy to transport them
  • They can be more densely packed and so more can be transported in a load
  • They have fewer breakages
  • They keep milk fresher for longer and so there is less food waste

The modern plastic milk bottle is also made from as much as 30% recycled plastic and technology is heading towards 50%. Up to 75% of HDPE milk bottles are recycled according to waste experts WRAP.

So why are we getting excited about milk in glass bottles again. Well its key advantage is reusability. A milk bottle delivered to your door can be re-used over 50 times, although the average is about 15. According to a 1999 study in the USA, once a glass bottle has been used 5 times, the energy use for production, transport and washing is lower per delivery than a single use plastic bottle. But if the plastic bottle is recycled then the glass bottle has to be reused even more times to make it better. 

Dirty Rivers

But what about all those pictures of plastics on beaches and in the oceans. Cutting down on our plastic use must be good to stop all those problems. Sir David Attenborough told us during Blue Planet 2 that “we dump eight million tonnes of plastic into the sea every year”.

Well according to a study from from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and reported on the World Economic Forum website, 90% of plastic polluting the oceans comes from just 10 rivers – Eight of them are in Asia: the Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong; and two in Africa – the Nile and the Niger. So do plastic bottles sold in the UK make any difference. Well if those bottles are taken to the seaside and left by some idiot then they are just as bad as the millions flowing  down the Nile.

Should we just relax and drink coffee

The WWF-UK website has ten tips to reduce your plastic footprint including taking your own re-usable coffee cup to the café and changing your tea-bags, gum and wine for plastic free options (who’d have thought tea bags contained plastic?). However the main problem is not the plastic – it’s us. 

We are the bad guys. We consume too much and we expect solutions to the problem without us reducing our demands. How about having one less coffee or tea a day and drinking tap water? Why not sit in the café and drink at a table rather than  running about with scalding liquid in your hands! How about giving up gum? How about trying to grow some of your own fruit or vegetables so that you don’t have to drive to the supermarket with your bag for life so often? 

The best way to reduce our plastic footprint is to address the size of our shoes first. We can’t keep consuming even if alternatives are found. As that wonderfully eloquent 15 year old Greta Thunberg told the world leaders at theat the COP24 in Katowice, Poland last year “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.”