As much as I know I shouldn’t, I am definitely guilty of demonising plastic. Even if it is just a quip here and there, sustainability is primarily made up of trade-offs and grey areas, and completely damning one thing will often offset itself somewhere else.
I was stuck in a dilemma much like this before a new zero-waste shop opened up a ten minute walk from our flat. I was trying so desperately to use no plastic at all, but the only refill store in our city was a fifteen minute drive away (or two long ass bus rides).
If I needed one thing for a specific recipe, should I would walk to the local supermarket and buy it in plastic, or use up half an hours’ worth of petrol to get it wrapper-free? What if I made it all the way up to the zero-waste shop and it was out of stock? Could I stock up on other things we already had, to make the trip more worthwhile? Am I thinking about this too much?
What I mean to say is, we can only do our absolute best, and the War On Plastic might better be called the War On The Misuse Of Plastic.
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Plastic is, in fact, a very valuable and useful material. It increases fuel efficiency in cars by making them lighter, keeps cyclists safe with the widespread availability of crash helmets and protects food from spoilage. It keeps medical equipment sterile, cables insulated, and has even been credited with narrowing the gap between the Very Rich and the Very Poor.
The invention of plastic was truly remarkable; it’s misuse is what’s flooding the oceans. An accelerating cycle of using and discarding a material that’s designed to last forever is the issue, and this is where my instinct to purchase recycled plastic comes from.
On the one hand, I want to avoid any plastic at all costs, to demonstrate with my (very small amount of) buying power that the demand for plastic is reducing. On the other, I want to show that there IS a demand for recycled plastic and support the idea that it is a valuable resource that should be conserved and used with care.
I hardly think twice when I buy plastic from Lush, for example. They have a ‘closed loop recycling system’, which means that when you take your black pots back into store they’re guaranteed to be recycled into new black pots.
Say what you like about Lush and their parabens – they brought zero-waste to the high street, and I will always love them for that.
Other kinds of plastic I’m guilty of purchasing from time to time are cleaning products from Method and Ecover. Method already use completely recycled and recyclable plastic, and Ecover have pledged to start doing so from 2020. For every-day cleaning I use various products from our local zero-waste shop, but there are a few things I still buy from the supermarket. They include anti-bac and floor cleaner from Method, and stain remover and toilet cleaner from Ecover. (Ecover’s stain remover is AMAZING, by the way.)
I always think twice about taking plastic from supermarket shelves in this way – I wonder: Am I being fooled? Is this really recycled plastic? Even if it is recycled, am I still contributing to a global demand?
As usual, there’s no standard answer to any of these questions.
Currently, there is very little demand for recycled plastic. It’s no cheaper than making it from scratch and not enough consumers care; there’s no incentive for big companies to put in the extra effort. I’m hoping that will change soon, but that brings me back to my point: Should I buy recycled plastic, to help create that demand?
If everybody woke up tomorrow and stopped using plastic all together, what will happen to the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic that already exists? Should we be putting it to good use rather than letting it float around the oceans?
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It boggles me; it seems as though there is no right answer. Does buying recycled plastic make me not-zero-waste? What even is zero-waste anyway? No matter how far up the chain you chase it, there’s waste somewhere.
…I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this.
I still haven’t made my mind up – and I don’t think anybody should. Reducing your waste and protecting the environment isn’t about instilling hard and fast rules about what is or isn’t okay; technology is changing all the time, and so should we.