Plastic Love article in Summer 2018 Challenge Magazine
Tales from the front line
Christian Vassie on the trauma of our love affair with plastic
You know plastics are out of control when your wooden shelves are plastic veneer, your "biodegradable" bamboo cup is packed with melamine, your supermarket vegetables sit in plastic straight jackets, your toothpaste oozes polyethylene microbeads, your sausages are cased in nylon, your favourite team plays on a polypropylene pitch, while you comb your polyester hair with a plastic comb paid for with a polymer banknote.
Just about everybody is talking the talk when it comes to plastics: from the Guardian to the Daily Mail; politicians of all parties, celebrities, businesses - everyone's at it … but comes time to do the walk most of us are sitting in our chairs.
Plastic is complicated: there are so many kinds and they are so useful in so many ways that secretly most of us are deeply conflicted. Everywhere we look there are people desperate to tell you why this or that particular plastic must be exempted from legislation to control them, ably assisted by a confusing kaleidoscope of terminology.
Below is a lexicon defining four of the 'good' plastics that are currently being promoted.
As with all green-washing, businesses large and small are keen to be seen on the side of the angels and claims of biodegradability sweet talk consumers at every turn. They get away with this because, in the main, consumers are every bit as hypocritical as the businesses. We want to feel good about ourselves so we will happily buy any product that tells us the packaging is biodegradable without having the slightest intention of doing anything more than either a) putting the container or packaging in the recycling bin and trusting that someone else will know what to do with it or b) putting it in the grey bin and hoping that somewhere nearby there is a landfill site where miracles happen.
Politicians bring up the rear, standing up loudly for causes the public has already espoused. Targets are set, job done. The practical nitty-gritty is always less interesting than the slogan, with the result that plastic continues to be produced and used with almost total abandon. If we want real change a number of things must happen.
The lack of a market for recycled plastic.
If local and national government are serious about reducing plastic waste they both need to engage with creating a market for recycled plastic products. This challenge has been with us for decades with little sign of much being done. Maybe the Chinese refusing to take our plastic waste will oblige us to behave differently.
There are various plastics that, while not degradable, can be reused very simply. An example would be HDPE, or High Density Polyethylene. This is the plastic used to make plastic bottles, corrosion resistant piping, bottle tops, etc. This plastic can be melted and made into bricks with nothing more than a domestic blender and a toaster, so why isn't all this plastic waste routinely reused?
As a city councilor over a decade ago I tried to persuade the city council in York to buy plastic kerbstones instead of concrete ones. Trials had shown the material to be very strong and long-lasting. In 2006 plastic kerbstones were more expensive than concrete but the initial cost was more than offset by a huge advantage: its low weight.
A significant cost for local authorities everywhere is the number of hours lost to staff sickness from back problems for the teams that lay kerbstones. Lighter kerbstones mean fewer days off sick and by buying plastic kerbstones local authorities create a market for recycled plastic products.
Tests also show that recycled plastic kerb have great tensile strength than concerete kerbs and can be dropped from greater heights without breakage. They are also lower in carbon emissions during manufacture compared with the concrete equivalent.
Without a market for recycled plastic products how can recycling be viable? City of York council declined to consider plastic kerbstones back in 2006, and that attitude still pertains today in many local authorities up and down the land, regardless of all the good talk and targets. As Lib Dem campaigners we could do more to push for change.
As consumers we only see the end of a product's packaging life. For businesses packaging is more complex. Plastic is used in dozens of different ways precisely because it is reliable, cheap, longlasting, transparent, flexible, great at keeping out moisture. It is used without thinking because, if you exclude the environmental chaos around it, it is the best solution.
In my current job, as a designer, I work with Fair Trade producers in a dozen developing countries. We are working hard to get rid of plastic in all our operations; it is a real challenge.
There are two key packaging phases: transit and storage. The challenges are best represented in a few examples.
We buy soaps from Thailand; individual bars wrapped in cling film. The key risk is moisture damage in transit or in storage. We buy dreamcatchers from Bali. Made from natural materials - wood, cotton, feathers - our dreamcatchers are individually wrapped in plastic bags to prevent mould from moisture damage during transit.
We buy jewellery from India. Every necklace is shipped in an individual plastic bag, primarily to stop the items becoming tangled.
We buy from fifteen countries around the world and similar dilemmas present themselves everywhere.
The value of plastic bags does not end the benefits of using them during transit. Having items wrapped in plastic bags enables easy identification of products in the warehouse or stockroom.
Which brings us to a secondary use of plastic packaging; keeping products in optimal condition in warehouses and stockrooms. While car giants operate manufacturing systems where parts arrive just hours before they are to be used, many smaller producers and retailers can have stock sitting around in warehouses, stockrooms, or on shop shelves for eighteen months or more. Warehousing existed long before plastics, of course, but any shift away from plastics must address how products are to be stored safely by other means. A compostable bag that fell apart within a year would plainly not be of interest to wholesale or retail businesses.
All Cows Eat Plastic
This spring I visited a dozen suppliers in India and discussed at length how the might stop using plastic.
The scale of the problem is not hidden in India, along every road there are cows standing up to their knees in discarded plastic, chewing carrier bags where once they ate grass. In February this year the Hindustani Times reported on an operation that removed 80kg of polythene waste from a cow's stomach in Patna.
The situation is horrifying.
The Indian Government has just declared a ban on single-use plastic by 2022. This is fantastic news but for change to happen real energy, ingenuity, and pragmatism must be applied to sourcing alternatives.
At my company we have managed to ban more or less all polystyrene; our suppliers now use cardboard and paper when boxes need to be padded out, and if they don't then we jump up and down and shout until they do.
But how do you protect a wooden instrument or a cushion from mould in transit? We are currently trialing cassava-based bio-plastic bags on shipments from Indonesia. The challenge with compostable plastic is precisely that it is designed to degrade in the presence of water, so we are testing the viability of wrapping hundreds of smaller items in this compostable plastic, then using an outer wrapping of standard 'nasty' plastic to protect the shipment from moisture ingress.
This approach won't remove standard plastic altogether but it, if the trial is successful, it will dramatically reduce the amount of plastic in each shipment while still keeping individual items separate and easily identifiable.
I have recently tested one of our compostable bags, putting it in hot water where it disolved away to almost nothing. Not having the technology or know-how to test that 'almost nothing' residue I cannot declare that I know this material to be 100% safe, though I have seen film footage of the manufacturer doing the same thing then drinking the water. If anyone knows of a laboratory that is able to test that the residue of a disolved cassava bioplastic bag is harmless and non-toxic please get in touch.
Protecting SME in developing nations
Every solution brings an immediate further challenge: in this case where to source compostable plastic products in a developing nation. This is where the UK government and the EU have a role to play, if we want less plastic in the waste stream we must assist developing countries have access to viable alternatives - eg. compostable plastics and plant-based cellophanes - at prices that small business can afford. Last year Kenya showed global leadership in banning single-use plastics but without viable alternative packaging products are they condemning all exporting companies in Kenya to bankruptcy? To support SMEs in developing nations our government, MPs and MEPs must work with the Kenyan government to ensure that compostable packaging plastics are available at realistic prices. This is surely just as important as ensuring developing nations have access to renewable technologies.
Consumers need to get real. The public agree that we should all fly less often, eat less meat, use less plastic, etc. but in the privacy of the voting booth how many voters will actually vote for parties that propose to penalize all those behaviours we are happy to condemn in opinion polls?
How many of us hate plastic but will still choose a plastic-wrapped product over the unwrapped alternative because it seems cleaner, or more presentable, or more hygienic. To many beholders a gift looks more like a gift when it is entombed in shiny transparent plastic. Retailers face in two directions because their customers do; its that or go out of business.
If the British government does not show the courage of the Kenyan and Indian governments and legislate for change then the plastic plague will continue because it is cheap and does everything, including destroying the planet, really well. Politicians must protect us from ourselves.
For decades successive British governments have had a mechanism to enable them to do the right thing, even when it inconveniences the public in the short term.
They have been able to blame someone else: the EU. With the nuttiness of Brexit this route may soon be closed.
Will a post-Brexit government have the will to transform packaging even if it makes consumer goods more expensive?
If as consumers we do not show the courage of our convictions, we should not expect the retailers to believe we really want a greener world.
Everyone is waiting for everyone else to prove they are serious. I used to think that those who would subject all their purchases to a plastic striptease at the till in order to dump the unwanted plastic with the supermarket were exhibitionist extremists. As I stand in my kitchen peeling the plastic skin from my cucumbers and tearing pointless plastic windows from cardboard boxes, after 18 months in design for a wholesale and retail business, I am not so sure.
Time for a national till-side single-use plastic campaign called Strip Off. Any takers?
Christian Vassie is the Design Manager at Shared Earth, a Fair Trade company in York
How to recycle HDPE plastic the easy way
Recycled plastic kerb drop tests & tensile tests
Handling kerb stones: concrete v plastic
Plastic Lexicon of degradability
undergo a significant change in their chemical structure under specific environmental conditions resulting in a loss of some properties. Note that there is no requirement that the degradable plastic has to degrade from the action of "naturally occurring microorganism" or any of the other criteria required for compostable plastics.
will degrade from the action of naturally occurring microorganism, such as bacteria, fungi etc. over a period of time. Note, that there is no requirement for leaving "no toxic residue", and as well as no requirement for the time it needs to take to biodegrade.
are made from standard polymers such as PE (polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), and PS (polystyrene) with added ingredients (metal salts) to catalyze the degradation process. Oxo-biodegradable plastic will degrade abiotically at the end of its useful life in the presence of oxygen much more quickly than ordinary plastic.
are those that are "capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site as part of an available program, such that the plastic is not visually distinguishable and breaks down to carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, at a rate consistent with known compostable materials (e.g. cellulose), and leaves no toxic residue."