PLASTIC−OUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE
Everyone who buys groceries has experienced at the end of a week the problem of an overload of plastic bags!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming plastic as a material; we must remember that, thanks to plastic, many lives have been saved in the health sector. The practicality of using plastic is that it is cheap, easy to make and lightweight so It’s no wonder that the plastic food packaging industry is valued at $370 billion.
If you go out to buy strawberries or donuts, for example, they will be presented in multi layers of single-use plastic packaging. The material polyethylene extends the longevity of a product and therefore is widely used by producers and retailers,
Some interesting facts about plastic are that 1 to 5 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year (UN, Environment, 2020). Since 1950 the production of plastic has reached 9.2 Billion tons, which is equal to the weight of the” Great Pyramid of Giza” x 1600 (National Geographic, 2020).
According to the UN Report, 2020, Japan produces 30 billion plastic bags every year and is 2nd in the world for producing more plastic packaging waste per capita following the USA who are 1st on the list.
In 2018 food packaging was the second most common trash item found in beach cleanups, including straws, plastic forks, knives and spoons. The most polluted large body of water in the world is the Arctic Ocean with small particles of plastic affecting Arctic wildlife, especially birds. Plastic waste dumped in the sea every year is calculated to be in the region of 12.7million metric tons.
The challenge we face is that most of the plastic does not biodegrade; instead it breaks down into smaller fragments known as microplastics.
The current legislation for plastic recycling is divided into three categories:
- Chemical recycling – The raw material is used for industrial purposes.
- Material recycling – re-using plastic
- Thermal recycling – The plastic is burnt to produce energy
We must still have hope that we can all contribute to our environment. Scientists, NGOs, governments and volunteers are looking for creative solutions on how to tackle the Plastic issue.
One of the companies offering a creative solution is LOOP.
Loop is an online delivery service which uses reusable, sturdy containers. This bold movement may sound old school but right now it is working very well in the USA. They supply more than 300 types of containers. They provide containers for anything from laundry products to those for the food and beverage industry. One of the biggest challenges, according to its founder, is how to educate consumers. Their collaboration with Walgreens (a retail chain in the US) has brought a lot of positive changes in consumer behavior.
Big ventures such as Starbucks and McDonalds are also partnering in a pilot program ‘NextGen Cup Challenge’, to sell coffee in re-usable cups. Every year 250 billion cups are produced, therefore instead of producing new ones their idea is to re-use the current ones. Most cups end up in landfills meaning that a lot of resources are going to waste. This partnership is bringing to the table other big name retailers such as Nestle, The Coca-Cola group and other famous brands.
Another promising venture is “Avani “, from Indonesia. They have substituted plastic with products made from the cassava leaf. They sell many products such as paper straws, cassava bags, cutlery, etc.
Some scientists are experimenting in the lab to find solutions. One such project involves the wax worm, which turns plastic into compost and another is the study of a microbe which shrinks the time in which plastic degrades from hundreds of years to just a few days. (National Geographic, 2020)
Mealworms feast on expanded polystyrene foam.
These are optimistic solutions, but it is clear that we should all work together towards the same goal. Raising awareness and educating people and societies may be the biggest challenge of all!