There’s no love lost for plastic packaging. Whether it’s complicated recycling instructions on the products we buy, startling images of the impacts on wildlife or simply the economic value lost through waste, plastics have been climbing the international agenda for years. So how do 8 million tonnes of plastic still end up in the ocean each year?
The urgency of the issue has led to brands, governments, NGOs and celebrities promoting a host of solutions. Reusable packaging is part of the answer, and shopping bags, water bottles and coffee cups have become popular purchases for those trying to do their bit. This works to replace certain types of packaging, but think about all the other pieces of plastic we come into contact with every single day. Plastic film can keep food fresher for longer, and wrappers ensure medical equipment is safe for patients. In many cases, it wouldn’t be hygienic, convenient or feasible to go fully reusable.
A number of initiatives also aim to tackle the impacts of the problem, from scooping plastics out of the ocean to collecting litter from beaches. Again, these are valuable efforts and must continue. However, the three best known major international ocean clean-ups combined deal with less than 0.5 percent of those 8 million tonnes of plastics that enter the ocean annually. We need to treat the cause as well as the symptoms.This means looking upstream to design a plastics system that works, in which this material never ends up as waste in the first place.
The challenge here is that when it’s used, plastic packaging becomes dispersed. These items are distributed throughout the world in endless configurations and uses, with billions of customers. They’re often tiny, lightweight, difficult to collect and individually aren’t worth that much. So to truly rethink the way we make and use plastics, we need to come up with new approaches and systemic solutions.