We live in a throwaway society but plastics are here to stay, so what’s the alternative? Why should we care?
One Trick Wonders
Social media has made a mockery of food packaging in recent years, including packaged peeled bananas at Billa supermarket in Austria and oranges wrapped in plastic at Whole Foods Market in Texas. If only nature had invented something to cover them, I hear you scream!?
Plastic has been deemed the wonder material and of course it has benefits but once manufactured, it is here to stay. Between 2002 and 2012, humans produced more plastic than they did in the entire 20th century. As Jeff Bridges states, “plastic is a substance the Earth cannot digest”.
Much of the plastic in our food system is single-use – 38.5 million drinks bottles are thrown away each day in the UK alone.
Plastic wrap and containers cover fresh supermarket food and get binned once we get home. Plastics also feature heavily in our kitchens, from clingfilm to Tupperware and lunch boxes.
Many plastics can’t be recycled and once we bin them, they either go to landfill or end up in our waterways. Microplastics have been accumulating in our blue and green spaces since the 1960’s, but they’re not only an environmental concern, they affect our health too.
Is Less Plastic Possible?
“Anything put next to food and drink that we ingest has to be 100% safe,” says Amanda Keetley, the founder and director of the sustainable living website Less Plastic. “Stainless steel and glass are the best materials for storing food because they are inert and won’t interact with foods such as acidic tomato sauces like plastics can.”
She explains that when plastics are heated in the oven, microwave or dishwasher, toxins leach directly into the food and drink that we ingest. “Scientific research shows that the main chemical culprit, BPA, has been found in our blood and even breast milk. Heat and light speed up the release of toxins, so leaving a plastic water bottle in your car is not advised,” she explains.
BPA is no longer used to make baby bottles, but Breast Cancer UK is calling for it to be banned from all food and drink packaging because it mimics oestrogen and results in hormone disruption, plus it has been linked to breast and prostate cancers.
Waste Not Want Not
Taking long-term behavioural change to extremes, Bea Johnson is the founder of the Zero Waste lifestyle movement. Her book Zero Waste Home details the measures she has taken. Since she began in 2008, she has followed her own simple guidelines.
These guidelines are to use the 5 R’s: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot…in that exact order.
She takes glass jars and cloth bags to the shops to transport her food supplies home. She’s also decluttered her life, resulting in spending 40% less than before she adopted this way of living.
The holy grail is to reduce the amount of plastic being produced in the first place. But cool stuff is happening with plastic bottles that have been discarded. For example, every trendy pair of Riz boardshorts and all the beautiful rugs and bags made by Weaver Green are made entirely from recycled plastic bottles.
Innovative technology also offers quirky alternatives to plastic.
For example, BeeBee Wraps and Abeego produce an environmentally-friendly alternative to clingfilm. This food wrap, made from cotton soaked in beeswax, can be reused time and time again. Even better, after a year, it can be composted. It is breathable, flexible and above all healthy; there is no risk of any nasties getting on to your food.
“Innovative companies like Abeego have learnt from nature and although some people may argue that clingfilm reduces food waste, beeswax food wrap not only helps food last even longer but it results in zero waste,” says Amanda who has sought out the best plastic-free solutions for our food and drink, at home and on the move.
One solution to avoid so many plastic bottles at home is to use a traditional milk delivery service. The bottles can be returned each week and and reused. More innovative solutions include consumable cutlery made from rice, wheat and an ancient grain called sorghum by Indian company Bakeys, and biodegradable cups made from agar, a seaweed-based gel, by US startup Loliware.
When you’re on the go, how about an edible water bottle made from seaweed membrane?! The brainchild of London-based startup Skipping Rocks Laboratory, Ooho! is a biodegradable water bottle made from a seaweed and calcium chloride-based membrane safe for human consumption. It’s a spherical packaging that mimics the way nature encapsulates liquids using membranes.
It’s early days and it does have its limitations. However, it seems a great solution for waste-free rehydration pit-stop at sports events, perhaps.
Removing Plastic Altogether
The problem of plastics in the food industry is a global one. Some countries are more ahead of the game in recognising this problem, including Ethiopia, Morocco and San Francisco. In September 2016, France announced they would ban all disposable plastics by 2020, and the region of Karnataka in India has banned the use of plastic across the entire state.
This is great news but what will they replace it all with? Bioplastics such as Vegware are a good alternative but ultimately they won’t biodegrade in the sea. The product needs the right environment and combination of pathogens to break down naturally.
It’s complex problem. We need to reduce production rather than simply finding ways to deal with the waste we all create.
“We have a responsibility to make change at all levels, from government to retailers and consumers,” says Amanda who believes we have the power to change habits and say ‘no’.
“The more plastic we use, the more will get produced, so we must stop adding to the problem. We need to initiate schemes like the plastic bag ban for coffee cups and lids, coffee capsule packaging and straws. The key is to avoid landfill and intercept this wasteful system. We can vote with our purse; that is the most effective vote we have.”