From plastic straws now becoming paper, to plastic bags costing 10p, to companies like Heinz changing their multipacks to use cardboard, plastic has been seen as a bad product and something that people should avoid using. But, how bad for the environment is plastic and are any of its alternatives actually better?
The problem with plastic
Plastic causes a lot of problems for the environment. For instance, plastic is not biodegradable meaning that it will fill up landfill sites and will not disappear if it is littered anywhere. Plastic also has a finite life span meaning that at some point it will need to be replaced at some point in its life causing more plastic to go into the environment. A lot of plastics are also single use which means people will throw them away once finished with their intended purpose.
The amount of plastic in single products is also a big issue. There are a lot of foods which come in more packaging than needed such as mini cheeses or portioned food like yogurts or crisps. These use more plastic than necessary so that it is more convenient for the customer and they do not have to individually divide the products up into portions. Whilst these may be convenient, they are bad for the environment as they lead to more plastic waste.
Reducing and reusing
Recently, people have begun to think of ways that we could reduce the amount of plastic we use. Re-fill stores, where people will go to buy products but use their own containers, have become more popular. As well as existing for pantry items, they also exist for cleaning products, personal hygiene and even alcohol. The companies use glass containers to store the products, which sometimes get refilled by plastic containers but these are larger than individual customers would buy therefore putting less plastic into the environment. These companies are also economically friendly as the customer can buy the amount that they need rather than a fixed amount in a package at the supermarkets. This means the customer can spend less and less food is wasted.
Other people have worked out ways that we could make the issues with plastic into a benefit. Someone realised that the fact that plastic is not biodegradable can actually be used as a good thing by filling up plastic bottles with plastic and then using them to build. These ‘bottle bricks’ can be very useful to build houses or other structures whilst being a very cheap and accessible product to make. One of the first examples of a house built from plastic was in Nigeria in 2011, so this is still a fairly modern idea. There are companies that are trying to make this more popular by asking people to donate plastic-filled bottles to them so that they can create more of these houses. However, they have some regulations about the type of bottles and plastics that can be used and are not very widely known about so this has not been as popular as it has the potential to be. A lot of people complain about the amount of plastic they use but do not look into schemes like this which require minimal effort but could ease their subconscious.
Alternatives to plastic
One alternative of plastic is glass. It is sometimes used for bottles for sauces or jars for products such as jam or peanut butter. Glass has a much longer life span than plastic does and once finished with it can be recycled and remade again for another use, meaning it is much better for the environment. However, it is not currently used as often as it could be due to it being an expensive material for companies to buy and businesses not wanting to decrease profits and lots of customers would be unwilling to pay the price increase.
Another alternative would be to use cardboard or paper. This is used for some items already like paper straws or paper bags in some shops. Cardboard is a good option as it biodegrades but that can also cause use issues as the straws tend to stop being useable after not long and the bags are not useful at all when it is raining. The straws also have an unusual issue of containing gluten making them impossible to use for someone who is celiac. So even though it is better for the environment, it is not practical for continuous use.
There are some other unusual alternatives like straws that are made from food such as pasta or wafers but these are more expensive and also have the issue of the customer being allergic to the ingredients in them. Another example is beeswax wraps which is an alternative to cling film. These are reusable and environmentally friendly but are also expensive and have the risk of someone being allergic to them.