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Living your life without plastic

 

August 2018

Plastic litter on beach
Action is slowly being taken to reduce our use of plastic

Is there anyone out there who lives their life without plastic? Let’s face it, plastic may not have been around when our grandparents were alive (ah, the old days of string carrier bags, brown paper wrapping, tin toys and metal picnic plates!) but today plastic now dominates our lives. From milk containers to vegetable packs to body creams to credit cards, just about every aspect of our life probably has some element of plastic in it.

Which was all fine until reports started accumulating about the damage this was doing to our planet.  Pictures of beaches and oceans buried beneath plastic debris and pictures of animals entangled in plastic are becoming more and more common.

Now scientists around the world are fully engaged in developing a new type of plastic which will degrade quickly without causing environmental damage.

Earlier this year a supermarket in Amsterdam set aside a large area devoted to over 700 products, all plastic free. The store (in Ekoplaza if you want to visit) carries meat, rice, sauces, dairy products including yogurt, chocolate, fresh fruit and vegetables and snacks all in new compostable bio-materials as well as in more traditional glass and cardboard containers and wrapping. The new wrapping includes a compostable biomaterial made from trees and leaves.

Most plastic is made from propylene, a chemical component in petroleum. When this is heated up, its chemical makeup changes into something that nature doesn’t recognise. Plastic can degrade eventually…but the time is the problem. Plastic items are estimated to take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills and the plastic bags we used to pick up readily from the supermarkets have been estimated to take up to 10,000 years or more. Simple plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose. No wonder the world is getting littered!!

Recent reports show that here in the UK, our supermarket’s produce more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year; add that to worldwide plastic waste and the global problem becomes very clear indeed.

But now news of new bio plastics is coming in fast. Scientists are exploring many different options involving complex names such as PLA blend bio-flex, thermo-plastic starch and cellulose acetate. From all over the world, promising results are coming in. Students from Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute have even developed a bioplastic made from mango peel that mimics most of the qualities of plastic but is fully biodegradable. Research from the University of York says half of the plastic bottles we use in the UK could be replaced with biodegradable bottles made from just 3% of our sugar beet crop, 5% of wheat straw and 2.5% of food waste.

Big brands such as PepsiCo are now planning on introducing bio-based materials for its packaging. The British government is talking about how to move on from our plastic dominated society.

It all sounds really hopeful. However, it seems this will not offer a full solution. Already concern is being voiced about “compostable plastics” not biodegrading in the ocean, and also the idea of growing huge amounts of foods such as sugar, corn, tapioca, for the sole purpose of using it in new style plastic wrapping.

It certainly is a modern age problem that was not considered a couple of generations ago. But going back to filling our recyclable shopping bags with unwrapped fruits and vegetables and paper wrapped meat is probably not going to happen anytime soon.

If you want to get involved in at least removing some of the damaging plastic from our beaches and landscape, then there are several organisations already involved in this.

Surfers Against Sewage organises two huge volunteer led beach clean events every year which removed tonnes of plastic pollution and litter from over 570 beaches around the UK. Find out more here.


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