A Life Less Plastic: so when did plastics become so fantastic?
[See also A Life Less Plastic | How We Can All Contribute | Better Food’s Journey]
Plastics are chemical polymers, or chains made from hydrocarbon, which are a by-product of the oil industry.
Due to their versatile properties – strength, flexibility and heat resistance among them – and innumerable handy uses, they are now ubiquitous in the environment.
Plastics were developed around 100 years ago. They really took off in the 1970s when neoliberal policies were introduced and fast became the symbol of 20th century living. From Barbie girl to balloons, plastic was the epitome of fun and frivolity; a celebration of consumerism following World War II frugality. Mothers, who continued to do the bulk of the shopping, were often the target audience of marketeers. Their campaigns promoted a variety of plastic solutions to make life simpler, more hygienic and convenient. By the 1980s, unwrapped produce, glass and metal bottles, tin lunch boxes and cloth wrap were largely a thing of the past.
Today plastic is a multi-billion dollar industry. The UK generates £23.5 billion in annual sales alone. However just a few big agrichemical, oil and car companies own plastics, with the polystyrene industry being dominated globally by a Dow Chemical subsidiary. Dow Chemicals is one of the largest producers of agrichemicals, and lobbies to maintain its status quo in governing the production and subsequent packaging of inorganic food.
Plastic is rubbish
Propylene – a simple chemical component of petroleum – has to be heated to form chemical polymers. By doing so we denature the ‘ingredient’ and fuse it together with others in very strong carbon-carbon bonds. You can think of this like making a cake: once the ingredients have been baked there is no going back to the raw materials. However, unlike a cake, plastic doesn’t break down. This is because it takes billions of years for organisms to evolve to attack certain types of bonds – like those in a cake – and carbon-carbon bonds are not found in nature.
Because of this, plastic keeps accumulating in the environment. Each year at least 8m tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean. The origins of this plastic are unclear, but it is likely the discarded rubbish from densely populated coastlines and inland waterways. When it rains, that wrapper innocently dropped on the floor may make its way into the storm drain and so begin its journey to the ocean.
A recent study found an average of 334,271 pieces of plastic per square mile in the North Pacific Central Gyre, which serves as a natural eddy system to concentrate material. Results of more than 10 years of volunteer beach clean-up data indicate that 60 to 80 percent of beach debris comes from land-based sources. Plastic marine debris affects at least 267 species worldwide, including 86 percent of all sea turtle species, 44 percent of all sea bird species, and 43 percent of marine mammal species.
If caught in plastic (e.g. fishing nets, plastic drinks can holders) marine species may drown. While if ingested, often in the form of micro-plastics, animals can suffer lacerations or suffocate on the debris. Microplastics also block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae, which are an integral part of the marine food web. This infographic from the Huffington Post clearly explains the process from city to sea.
Plastic carrier bags, coffee cups, drinks can holders, cigarette butts, plastic cutlery, straws, sweet wrappers and plastic bottles , to name but a few, are all designed to be single-use. They are also among the most discarded items by consumers in the UK; yet they are completely avoidable.
Better Food investigates
There’s no doubt, we still have too much plastic and packaging in our stores. We’re on it. We’ve audited our current situation and are doing what we can do to tackle the problem. Speaking with colleagues, suppliers and customers on social media, we’ve gained a picture of the areas of priority for the coming year. The ultimate goal is to be single-use plastic free. But there are a number of challenges that we face which mean this process will be a lengthy one. Clink the links below to find out how we are doing and what we can all do to tackle the challenge together.