Plastic Waste Is a Problem, but Wasting What the Plastic Is Wrapping Is Many Times Worse

Piles of garbage

Judith Thornton questions the conventional wisdom about plastic packaging. She has a controversial point.

Surveys show that people think recycling is the greatest greenest thing they can do, yet we on TreeHugger have always called it a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business to make us feel good about using single-use plastics and packaging. That's why we bang on about going zero waste and say we should give up plastic right now. So it was with some shock that I started reading Judith Thornton, who works at Aberystwyth University in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) and writes a collection of thoughts about a low carbon future.

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© The Standard IssueIn 2018 she wrote a long post she describes as controversial, titled On why we should continue to buy food wrapped in plastic, and which I wish I had read at the time, because it makes surprisingly good sense. She makes the case that "wrapping fruit and vegetables in plastic is a good thing because it slows biological decay, and therefore prolongs shelf life and minimises food waste." Thornton demonstrates that the CO2 emissions from food waste far exceed those of plastic, and "the fact remains that most of us rely on supermarkets for at least some of our fruit and veg, and if we want to eat anything out of season or food that isn’t grown in the UK it is likely to need packaging in order that the product gets to us in good condition."

Now one could make the case, as we do on TreeHugger, that one should eat a seasonal and local diet (in that order of importance), but that is a bridge too far for many people. She concludes by reiterating this point: "Food production makes up a significant proportion of global GHG emissions. Plastic packaging doesn’t."

I find it both depressing and fascinating that I ended up feeling I needed to write this post. Depressing because despite the overwhelming maths, our society seems to be obsessed with drinking straws, plastic bags and disposable coffee cups, rather than what is undoubtably the biggest environmental challenge we have ever faced, namely GHG emissions. Fascinating, because I really don’t understand how we got ourselves into this mess.

Times change, and so do we all.

©. jannoon028
I didn’t realise that what I said was going to be so controversial. In essence, it was clear to me from reading some of the academic literature that plastic food packaging plays an important role in protecting food from damage and decay, and also that from the perspective of both climate change and marine ecosystem health, avoiding food waste is more important than avoiding plastic waste. It is also obvious from LCA studies that in most cases, plastic is a much better packaging material than paper, glass or other alternatives.

Now she has had a bit of a Damascene conversion, noting that public attitudes have shifted from what seemed an excessive focus on plastic to the larger issue of climate. "The myopia and blame shifting is the thing that made me saddest about the plastic debate, so I am really glad that we seem to have moved on from it." Clearly things are different in the UK, as in North America it seems that the myopic obsession with straws is stronger than ever.

But other things have changed, including the exposing of the entire recycling infrastructure as the fraud that it was after the closure of China to our waste plastic, where the labor was cheap enough to separate the plastics by type. That, along with the low cost of gas and oil, and the petrochemical industry's pivot to plastic in anticipation of reduced demand from cars, will make recycled plastic uncompetitive for years to come; expect more "waste to energy" proposals and the "circular" idea of chemical recycling. Thornton agrees with me on this issue:

Chemical plastic recycling is shaping up to be a major redefinition of what is regarded as ‘recycling’, and the environmental cost-benefits are yet to be determined. My fear is that it will be used as justification to allow consumption to continue unabated.

Thornton also makes a point that we have tried to for many years, that recycling is not a licence to consume. In fact, that is exactly what the industry taught us, that we are all good girls and boys if we recycle because then it is not waste. But it is.

Recycling is quite literally the last thing you should be doing; if your recycling bin is full, you should be buying less stuff, not giving yourself a pat on the back for being good about separating your waste!... I’m not saying don’t recycle, simply that we should be mindful of how minor a part of the solution it is. The best way of wielding power in this regard is simply to buy less stuff.

But you don't have to wrap everything in plastic, there are options.

CC BY 2.0. These tomatoes filled our house with fruit flies/ Lloyd Alter

These tomatoes filled our house with fruit flies/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The concept that we should be worrying more about what the plastic is wrapping than the plastic itself is really important, although companies could be more thoughtful and efficient with their packaging. Where I part with Thornton is over her point that plastic is necessary if we are shipping food long distances out of season. Ten years ago, when my wife was writing about food for a now defunct website, we lived a local and seasonal diet, and gave up on store-bought tomatoes, strawberries and asparagus in winter (although a few days of canning when the stuff was in season yielded more tomatoes than you can eat); turnips and parsnips don't need plastic wrapping. We are not quite as doctrinaire about local anymore (I like grapefruit!) but one can still eat a varied and interesting diet without buying all that plastic-wrapped stuff, and it's the prepared foods that come with heavy packaging, not a few vegetables.

Also, plastic has to be recognized as a solid fossil fuel, made from natural gas and oil. For PET, the standard plastic bottle, 6 kg of CO2 are emitted in the manufacture of 1 kg of the plastic. As noted in NPR,

"The real story of plastics' impact on the environment begins at the wellheads where it comes out of the ground," says Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law. "And it never, ever stops... Emissions from plastics production and incineration could account to 56 gigatons of carbon between now and 2050." That's 56 billion tons, or almost 50 times the annual emissions of all of the coal power plants in the U.S.
Grow your own

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As for the point that the impact is lower than other materials such as glass, Thornton says refillable glass milk bottles only last six trips. Yet, Ontario beer bottles go 35 trips and have the lowest impact of any form of beer packaging. Coke bottles used to average dozens of trips. Our grandparents lived this way and they didn't waste much of anything.

Shaking off the Convenience Industrial Complex

Getting rid of plastic really requires an adjustment of lifestyle; we got trapped in what I have called the Convenience Industrial Complex, where we had our options taken away by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry, so many people now drive once a week in the big SUV to a giant store where they buy all that food wrapped in plastic and store it in their double-wide fridge. And don't get me started on the app-driven delivery craze, which is almost purposefully designed to dramatically increase our plastic waste. Katherine Martinko has said much the same thing in Straw bans won't fix the plastic problem, but something else can:

What needs to change instead is American eating culture, which is the real driving force behind this excessive waste. When so many people eat on the go and replace sit-down meals with portable snacks, it's no wonder we have a packaging waste catastrophe. When food is purchased outside the home, it requires packaging in order to be clean and safe for consumption, but if you prepare it at home and eat it on a plate, you reduce the need for packaging.

I have to thank TreeHugger friend Nick Grant; first he introduced me to the idea of radical simplicity and now I learn about Judith Thornton. I have only read her posts on plastic so far and it covers many subjects I have written about, but with more science and less rant. In particular, read about tire wear; I got into so much trouble with this one, but it is even worse than even I thought: If you’re worried about microplastics in the ocean, you should stop driving your car.