Editorial Feature

Plastic Packaging Alternatives- Are they causing more harm?

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A panel consisting of 40 academicians from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, has said that a ban on plastics might seem like promoting a cleaner and greener future, but it could lead the environment towards greater damage.

Professor David Bucknall, chair in materials chemistry at the University’s Institute of Chemical Sciences, also agrees with the panel by saying that current arguments surrounding a lessening or ban of plastic use were “short-sighted and not based on facts”. On replacing plastics with currently available materials such as metal and glass would double the global energy consumption and treble the emissions of greenhouse gases. The environmental cost would nearly be four times greater.

Firms and supermarkets swapping plastics to other packaging material cause a more negative effect on the environment. For example, glass bottles are much heavier and contribute to more pollution through their transportation. On the other hand, plastics are light in weight. Transportation of consumer goods in plastic packaging requires fewer vehicles which involve burning less fuel and, thereby, prominently reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, paper bags, which are more difficult to reuse, cause greater carbon emissions, when compared to plastic bags.

Kate Sang, Professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt’s School of Social Sciences, has commented that apart from the environmental damage caused by plastic pollution, one must also recognize that single-use plastics have changed the healthcare system in delivering a safe and responsible health service. For example, single-use plastic straws are essential for many disabled and elderly people. Alternatives such as pasta straws are unsuitable because they are not flexible and cannot be used by those with gluten intolerance. Paper straws disintegrate over a short period and silicone straws need to be sterilized, which is simply not practical in public places.

Retailers agree that climate change needs to be the primary concern and necessary changes should be adapted to restore our environment. Plastic remains the most effective material in many circumstances, for instance, cucumbers wrapped in plastic last 14 days longer, minimizing food waste. These small facts highlight the need to develop a coherent strategy, considering all existing facts, and weighing different environmental impacts without focusing primarily on banning the use of plastics and ignoring facts on food waste.

Confusions Regarding Compostable Packaging

A great deal of confusion lies with the understanding of the type of plastics used by customers. Over 80% of consumers consider biodegradable or compostable plastic as environment-friendly, without understanding the true meaning of the terms. The retailers worry that this ignorance could potentially harm the environment if people mix unknowingly a "compostable" plastic with conventional plastic, or littered it wrongly, assuming it would biodegrade like an apple core. Further, bioplastics can cause immense damage when they end up in the wrong place, says Jo Ruxton, co-founder of campaign group Plastic Oceans. Even plastics labeled as biodegradable can take years to breakdown at sea, during which time they can inflict plenty of damage.

Development of Alternative Form of Packaging

Iza Radecka and Marek Kowalczuk, researchers at Wolverhampton University, have developed a method for producing polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) by feeding bacteria using cooking oil. They believe this strengthens the case for their use, particularly in the food services industry, where contaminated food packaging has traditionally been very hard to recycle. A California based company, Full Cycle Bioplastics, has established a technique for converting food scraps and other organic waste into compostable plastic. They claim that the material manufactured will be as cheap as oil-based plastics when produced on a large scale. Andrew Falcon, Chief Executive of Full Cycle Bioplastic, stated that their invention has the potential to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and ease plastic pollution in the ocean, as well as on land. The material would degrade without leaching toxins into the environment.

Steps were Taken by the Government to Tackle Plastic Pollution

Recently, the governments of many European countries have devised several environmental policies focusing on the reduction of plastic pollution. The UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan has pledged to eradicate ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042. The Resources and Waste Strategy has also promised to make packaging producers cover the full costs of recycling their products, commencing a deposit return scheme (DRS) for disposable drinks containers and to introduce a tax on plastic packaging that uses less than 30 percent recycled content. A ban on wash-off plastic microbeads used in cosmetic and personal care products also came into force at the start of 2018, while a ban on plastic straws, drinks stirrers, and plastic-stemmed cotton buds will come into effect in England later this year.

Sources and Further Reading

 

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Priyom Bose, PhD

Written by

Priyom Bose, PhD

Priyom graduated from the University of Madras, India, with a PhD in Plant Biology and Plant Biotechnology.

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