Is single-use plastic really the root of all evil?

In 2017, the BBC programme Blue Planet ll opened a lot of eyes to the effects of plastic in marine environments. As a consequence, single use plastic has become a symbol of unsustainable behaviour. But, is single-use plastic really the root of all evil, or are there other, bigger problems that it can help us solve?

The movement against single-use plastic has many different parts. One of them aims to reduce food packaging. A number of organisations advocate for consumers to buy unwrapped fruits and vegetables, to buy in bulk instead of smaller packages, and to buy fresh produce instead of frozen or tinned products. All in the hope of reducing plastic packaging, and to create less waste that might end up in the ocean.

There are even those who have encouraged people to remove packaging from their groceries before leaving the shop as a form of civil protest – demonstrating to the stores and manufacturers that we want less packaging, not more.

Reduced packaging increases food waste
The problem with this is that a lot of the advice aiming to reduce food packaging ends up increasing food waste instead. We buy a large bag of salad instead of two smaller ones to save on packaging, and then we don’t manage to finish it before it goes off. We buy unwrapped fruit and vegetables that have been shuffled around by supermarket staff (and prodded and poked by other customers in the shop), and therefore goes off sooner than we expected; so again we don’t manage to eat it all before we have to throw it away.

Food waste occurs throughout the production chain, but a large part of it occurs after the product is bought by the consumer. A comparative study found that in both the UK and the US we throw away about 25 percent of the food we buy.

How do we then square that circle? Do we waste food, or create waste by protecting our fresh food better? And of the two issues, which is most pressing when we look at the bigger picture?

The bigger picture
The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) published a report in 2011, estimating that each year, one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. That amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. Other estimates are even higher; some say up to 50 percent. This means that we are no longer able to produce enough food to feed all seven billion people on our planet. Consequently, around 1 billion regularly starve. We also continue to burn forests and drain wetlands to create enough arable land for this inefficient food production, thereby creating a whole different set of biodiversity issues.

Can we make plastic more of a non-issue?
Is it therefore possible to create a scenario where plastic bottles and other forms of packaging is used to prevent and reduce food waste, but doesn’t end up as an environmental catastrophe? The answer is yes, there are other options than to dump it in a river, or even a landfill, where it will take hundreds of years to decompose.

Altering consumer behaviour
One of the most common items seen in both rivers and oceans are plastic bottles and drinks cans. Efficient deposit schemes can ensure that containers are recycled (or even re-used) instead of ending up in the sea, and other places where they don’t belong. Several countries in Europe have deposit schemes already. In Germany such a system has existed for many years, and the recycling percentage is 97%. The equivalent number in the UK is at present 43%, according to The Guardian.

Turning waste into energy
It is also possible to burn plastic (and other) waste in in specialised power plants, where waste-to-energy incinerators create electricity and heating. It does create a certain amount of CO2, but burning one tonne of waste creates only a quarter of the CO2 burning a tonne of oil would. The plants are equipped with filters so toxins and potential pollutants don’t get discharged into the atmosphere. Denmark has such a system, and it works. Around 96% of all plastic waste in Denmark is either recycled or burned to create energy. In the UK, only 31% of plastic is currently recycled and no nationwide system exists to burn household rubbish.

In my opinion, we should be careful not to get caught up in focusing solely on reducing single-use plastic at all costs, we need to look at the bigger picture. With proper recycling systems that make it easy for customers to sort their waste, deposit schemes and ways of turning waste into energy – single-use plastic need not coninue being the same huge problem it is today. I am not saying we shouldn’t try and reduce the use of plastic, or get manufacturers to take greater responsibility for their products. I just believe it will be counterproductive if we focus too narrowly, and in the process potentially increase other problems like hunger and biodiversity loss.