Head of Resource Policy, Green Alliance
The meteoric rise in our use of plastic, from just 1.7 million tonnes in 1950 to more than 350 million tonnes a year today, enabled a wholehearted embrace of throwaway living.
This ‘on the go’, single use way of life is now firmly embedded in our society and, in some ways, has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But we have at least begun to realise the short sightedness of this approach. We know that material that is not valued is too often discarded after brief use, and the impacts of mismanaged plastics have become all too apparent with the devastating images we’ve all now seen of animals killed or trapped by plastic waste. This heightened public awareness means businesses and governments have promised (if not yet delivered) ambitious action to address plastic pollution.
But plastic is not the only material that has environmental consequences or that currently enables throwaway living. There is a risk that, in the rush to eliminate plastic, we ignore the avoidable consequences from equally unnecessary alternatives. Simply removing it from a dysfunctional system and replacing it with other materials that perform the same functions does not deliver sustainability.
Many small businesses have opted to switch to compostable or plant-based plastics before the necessary infrastructure is in place to deal with them.
Already, single use items like straws, cutlery and single use carrier bags are being replaced by equally unnecessary disposable paper or wooden alternatives, when the move should really be towards reusables. We’ve seen aluminium, glass and carton alternatives entering the bottled water market, even though single use bottles can be avoided altogether: the UK has some of the best quality tap water in the world. Tap water has a fraction of the carbon impact, incurs a fraction of the cost and is increasingly easy for people to access on the go.
Many small businesses have opted to switch to compostable or plant-based plastics before the necessary infrastructure is in place to deal with them so they really are able to be more environmentally beneficial.
Minimising the use of all resources
What is needed instead is an approach that minimises the use of all resources and their impacts, rather than considering plastic alone. A more circular economy, where materials are kept circulating through reuse, remanufacturing and recycling, would make this possible, and would reduce the other environmental and social impacts associated with raw material extraction.
We should urgently tackle the scourge of plastic pollution, but in so doing we should be using the moment to re-evaluate and end our throwaway culture for good.