In The truth about plastic, Ross Clark gives chapter and verse on the curse of plastic packaging. He paints a depressing picture of a planet creaking under the weight of tonne after tonne of plastic detritus, and is fearful that plastic bags, yoghurt pots and disposable cups will be the chief archaeological relics of our age. But having conceded that the seas are ‘unquestionably heavily polluted’ with a potpourri of discarded packaging, he goes on to rail against efforts to stem the garbage tide. It’s perverse. The future has to be plastic-free.
Plastic pollution has become a voguish issue not because some out-of-touch elite has made it so, but because its effects are now so devastating that even the most ardent plastic advocate can’t bring themselves to bury their head in the sand. The ubiquity of plastic rubbish has become impossible to ignore, and so it’s not just a problem preying on the minds of the concerned middle classes. Vast swathes of coastline, both in foreign climes and the British Isles, are tainted by the hangover from our decades-long addiction to goods gratuitously ensconced in plastic wrapping. We’re now so engulfed in plastic that one-in-three fish caught off the coast of South West England contain traces of it.
Now that it has become clear we are mired in a crisis that should have been nipped in the bud decades ago, potential solutions to the plastic problem are emerging all the time. One such solution touted by many as a viable long-term alternative to conventional packaging is bioplastic. Made from renewable resources like plant biomass, bioplastics have been heralded as the material that will crack the pollution nut. Bioplastic comes in for some heavy criticism from Clark. Bioplastics take up thousands of acres of arable land that would be better put to use in food production. On this, he’s right.
Bioplastic is nothing more than plastic made from recent vegetation rather than fossil fuels. Bioplastic decomposes almost identically to petrochemical plastics and remains on the earth for centuries, despite having a useful lifespan of a few weeks. Bioplastic is plastic, and so it’s absurd to link criticisms of the material with the raft of ingenious 100 per cent plastic-free biomaterials that are already transforming the market for the better. Some of the other solutions such as cardboard, paper, glass, tin and aluminium are far more quotidian but no less viable for it.
Clark also believes that going plastic-free would force shoppers to abandon a roughage-rich regimen in favour of a hideous cocktail of Turkey Twizzlers and TV dinners. But much of the plastic that currently encases the groceries we buy is rendered completely redundant by the God-given shell that gives fruit and veg natural durability. Who would fail to wince at the ludicrous sight of apples hidden away in plastic tennis ball tubes? Who could pick up a plastic-coated swede in the supermarket and claim that we are where we need to be with plastic packaged food and drink retail right now?
By wrapping fruit and vegetables in layer after layer of plastic, supermarkets have ensured that we have lost the multisensory, gustative experience that food shopping used to give us. Aisles of plastic, entombing everything from meat, fish and dairy to pasta, salads and baby food, make the trip to our local supermarket one of sensory deprivation. For a nation of leisure-shoppers, no-one volunteers to go to the supermarket for an enjoyable Saturday morning.
He is against punitive taxation as a method of driving consumers away from plastic packaging and so am I. But the alternative he prescribes will do virtually nothing to cure our plastic illness. Recycling is often heralded by conglomerates as the brave new dawn that we all want, yet we’ve been able to recycle plastic for decades and the world remains punch-drunk on the faux-convenience of throwaway plastic.
Of the 6.3 billion tonnes produced since the 1950s, only nine per cent of plastic has been recycled; and even then probably only once. Plastic packaging cannot be recycled ad infinitum, with most plastics becoming unusable having only been recycled twice. Whichever circuitous route it takes through Britain’s myriad waste processing network, plastic will be burnt creating toxic fumes, buried in landfill or find its way into our oceans sooner or later. The recent Chinese import ban on plastic from overseas further calls into question the ability of the global recycling industry to ensure plastic remains in the economy and out of the environment.
The answer, then, seems simple. We have to turn off the plastic tap in food and drink retail. Backed in January by Theresa May in her first major speech on the environment, Plastic Free Aisles in supermarkets represent an important first step in the right direction. A Plastic Free Aisle would enhance consumer choice, freeing shoppers from the shackles of participating in a market rigged heavily in favour of a zeitgeist that has left our oceans and rivers on the brink of ruin. Plastic Free Aisles are backed by people from all walks of life from all over the country. Last year a Populus poll revealed that more than nine in ten UK adults back the introduction of a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets.
Calls for Plastic Free Aisles are not being driven by an anti-business group of dogmatic activists. They enjoy the support of business leaders who have been there and done it – captains of industry that have employed hundreds of thousands of people and turned around the fortunes of multi-billion pound businesses. These include former ASDA CEO Andy Clarke, current Debenhams Chairman Sir Ian Cheshire, and former M&S CEO Lord Rose of Monewden. With a profound political and business consensus emerging around Plastic Free Aisles, 2018 is set to be a milestone year for what has become the defining environmental issue of our age.
After decades of collective wilful ignorance, the truth about plastic is out. To solve the packaging crisis we must keep it simple. We have to increase the use of materials that nature can handle and eliminate the use of those nature can’t. Fashionable or not, we must all rise to the plastic-free challenge before it’s too late.
Siân Sutherland is the co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet – the campaign for a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets. To learn more about the campaign visit aplasticplanet.com