Adam Middleton is the Business Development Manager for Takeaway Packaging following a career in PR, shipping and marketing within the packing industry. With a Bachelor’s degree in Human Geography and a Masters in International Marketing, Adam has a keen interest in the environmental impact of consumerism.
In this opinion piece, Adam considers not only the harm that plastic causes but we need it, who exactly is to blame for plastic pollution, how we can better our approach to combat the effects of plastic on our environment and, of course, alternatives.
Now and then, the war on plastic packaging surfaces through shocking social media posts, making us care about it, even for just a little while. But saying no to plastic isn’t as straightforward as we think.
Videos of innocent animals dying due to the careless actions of humans have significant social share value — take this story run by the Evening Standard as an example, which highlights a beached whale in North Carolina, an innocent victim of plastic pollution.
These types of news stories make the solution to the war on plastic packaging seem so simple. After all, it’s so easy to use less plastic, switch to non-offending materials and be done with it, isn’t it? Our oceans will thank us and we can stop feeling guilty about washed-up deceased animals, for which we are to blame. But is it that clear cut?
It’s interesting that when it comes to plastic pollution, people rarely mention our reliance on the material for crucial functions, its position within important sectors of society and our dependence on its hygienic, durable features. For example, plastic plays a vital role in the healthcare industry and is used to save lives.
Knowing this, you can see how the war on plastic packaging isn’t as black and white as the newest shock-factor story makes it out to be. In fact, plastic in itself is a paradox. We want to eliminate its use to save ocean life, yet we depend on its existence to save our own.
Above all of this, there’s a lack of responsibility when it comes to the excessive use of plastic packaging for less vital functions, like in the food and drink industry. The buck is passed from corporation to consumer and back again, in an endless game of tennis where nobody wants the ball to land in their court.
Governments around the world are now proposing plastic taxes, which would charge buyers for every latte they purchase that uses single-use plastic packaging, but is this the correct approach? This post attempts to find some clarity when it comes to plastic consumption, who’s to blame and what a sustainable solution might look like if we all clubbed together to take a realistic view of the situation.
Why Are We Still Using Plastic and Who Is to Blame?
Before we rush to make a fleeting suggestion on how to reduce plastic consumption, as if it will suddenly solve the crisis that we find ourselves in, we first have to understand why it’s still so popular, despite our knowledge of its impact on the environment.
The desirable traits of plastic
Plastic is used every day by millions of people, so it must have some positive points. To give you a guideline on our average usage, one million plastic bottles of water are purchased every minute across the world.
In short, our reliance on plastic packaging comes down to four key traits, and these are why we continue to manufacture products and packaging using this material.
So what’s “good” about plastic? In short, it’s:
The most common uses of plastic
Plastic is most commonly used in industries where these four desirable traits are necessary.
Healthcare is an excellent example of this. Medical equipment has to be hygienic to provide patients with sanitary treatment conditions. It’s important for plastics used in a medical environment to be lightweight and flexible to support various functions, with such items including medical gloves, catheter tubes, and synthetic implants. Finally, the material used for these purposes must be durable, long-lasting and reliable.
Other common uses for plastics include:
- Industrial containers and drums
- Drinking bottles
- Cups and vending packaging
- Packaging that protects fragile objects
Sectors that traditionally rely on plastic
The healthcare sector uses plastic positively and, as such, receives little criticism. However, not all industries are treated in the same manner. This is where the war on plastic packaging gets complex. Certain sectors receive flack for their frequent use of plastic packaging, while others seemingly stay under the radar.
Food packaging, for example, has received a lot of negative attention for its plastic use. Although packaging does need to be hygienic, lightweight, flexible and durable, its importance pales in comparison to the manufacture of clinical healthcare objects. The reason why the conflict is titled The War on Plastic Packaging and not simply The War on Plastic is in the data. Out of all sectors, the packaging industry beats any other in terms of plastic manufactured and plastic wasted, holding the unenviable top spot in terms of plastic pollution:
With this said, there is a long list of sectors that traditionally rely on plastic with varying degrees of necessity:
- Food and drink
- Building and Construction
Among these sectors, there are several key types of plastics used. For example, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is commonly used in the building and construction industry. The most talked-about type of plastic when it comes to pollution, though, is Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET), which is used in the creation of plastic bottles. What you might not know is that PET is highly recyclable and certainly not the worst offender when it comes to plastic types. The situation, then, seems far from straightforward.
Consumer versus company: who, if anyone, is to blame?
By now, you might have realized that the plastic pollution issue is a bit of a minefield. As such, society finds it almost impossible to pin the blame on anyone specific. Currently, the responsibility of controlling plastic consumption is passed from the general public to government to private companies in an effort to resolve the problem, or at least prevent the issue from accelerating any further.
The latest news (aside from the proposed UK plastic tax that we’ve touched upon) is a supplier scheme, in which packaging producers must pay full recycling costs. Nicknamed “polluter pay”, this new initiative is a government-led endeavor.
No matter who we penalize though, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Collectively, we aren’t changing our daily habits in the long term, and so the cycle of guilt continues when a new story dominates the headlines and reminds us of our plastic plight. Could it be that for impactful awareness to be found, we must take shared blame and responsibility?
Like a relationship turned bad, we can only address our addiction to waste when we work together to understand and appreciate what’s gone wrong. Packaging Europe argued this recently while promoting a collaborative agreement between Unilever and Veolia, which was made to support the concept of tackling global waste issues together.
How Can We Deal with the War on Plastic Packaging?
It’s clear by now that the issue with plastic packaging is unlikely to be dismissed anytime soon and we can’t treat plastic waste frivolously. There isn’t an immediate solution to winning the war on plastic packaging; instead, it’s about making a long-term transition — and it’s likely going to be much more complicated than we’d like to pretend.
The plan might look something like this:
- Create a realistic picture of our waste problem
Instead of sharing videos for the sheer shock value, we need to work to create educating, long-lasting content to inform both the general public and suppliers about the issue at hand. This means investing in behavioral research that will give us critical insights into the level of awareness surrounding plastic consumption and the psychological motivators that lead us to continue purchasing unnecessary plastic packaging.
- Determine the ethical position of plastic use in each sector
As a society, we need to understand that the general concept of plastic isn’t bad. Within certain sectors, plastic is the most effective material and serves a necessary purpose to allow us to maintain healthy and happy lives. Judging each sector on its use of plastic and determining whether the ethical implications of plastic waste outweigh the outcomes will allow us to make informed decisions about where to most effectively target our efforts.
- Educate and inform suppliers and consumers about different plastics and materials
While a realistic picture of the problem should be painted for society, consumers and suppliers shouldn’t just be informed of it. By creating helpful guides about the solution — sometimes found in renewable materials like bioplastic, for example — each part of the supply chain can be fully aware of its impact on the environment.
- Eliminate single-use plastics and slowly work to change cultural habits
Single-use plastics clearly generate a higher volume of waste at a quicker pace and should be the first type of plastic to target. There are some exceptions to the rule, like non-reusable syringes, for example, but in general, raising single-use plastic awareness is essential if we are ever going to see a shift towards a waste-free culture. Influencer activities like Brita’s Swap For Good campaign is a perfect example of how we can spread the word about single-use plastics and be proactive, rather than disguise the issue with unhelpful criticism.
The Wrong Approach to Single-Use Plastics
Driving out single-use plastics via schemes that penalize consumers can be damaging. The proposed plastic tax in the UK is an example of negative reinforcement, a tactic that quite often sends out the wrong message fails to have a long-term impact and causes other unwanted outcomes. Such schemes raise, if anything, disdain for the plastic-free movement.
What do we mean by this?
Sending out the wrong message: Threatening people with punishment instead of a reward immediately creates resistance against the cause instead of support. Taxing coffee cups (or, by extension, any other everyday item) could be seen as overly severe to most regular coffee drinkers, which is a huge demographic to offend.
Failing to have a long-term impact: We live in a world where we quickly adjust to unfair price hikes. We complain but then, a little while later, we deal with it and move on. While the shock of such a scheme might dissuade buyers for the short term, once they get used to the extra charge, it’s likely that they will pick up the habit again, especially if their desire to buy a take-out coffee is strong.
Other unwanted outcomes: For the short period that the scheme is successful, other sections of society suffer. Shock value doesn’t make people suddenly buy a reusable cup and change their long-term habits; instead, they might temporarily decide to take their morning-commute coffee out of their routine until the situation blows over. This creates a negative impact on the local economy and is an example of an unwanted outcome.
Taking the right approach
If we aren’t going to scare people into doing the right thing, the only alternative — and one more likely to have a lasting impact — is to encourage them.
The Brita influencer campaign is an example of this positive reinforcement done right. The water filter brand encouraged consumers to freely make their own decisions to avoid buying bottled water. The social proof surrounding this ethical behavior serves to support and praise individuals, rather than shame others for their choices.
Another example is the Starbucks incentive, which rewards consumers for using their own recyclable cups. Since 1985, the major coffee brand has promoted the initiative, which grants the customer a discount on take-out drinks. Starbucks also sells recyclable cup merchandise in each of its stores in an effort to encourage the elimination of single-use plastics, while adding another income stream to its business plan.
This smart move means that all parties win — Starbucks makes more money from its branded apparel and has to spend less on single-use packaging, while consumers slowly shift to recognize the impact and benefits of avoiding this wasteful habit. On top of this, in addition to supporting the environment, the initiative also prevents any harm to the economy or other unwanted outcomes as a result of the wrong approach.
It’s important to give businesses credit where credit is due, as we’re aware that plastic pollution can be a pretty bleak subject. The ominous overtone is even more reason to celebrate brands that are working hard to send out the right message, such as Portuguese airline Hi-Fly, which launched the first public flight without any single-use plastic.
What Other Types of Materials Can We Use?
Plastic might always play a role in regulated industries like healthcare, but in other sectors, it is possible to make the switch towards using future-friendly alternatives.
A large part of this progress-oriented culture shift, where society takes shared responsibility for its mistakes and future actions, depends on education. Suppliers and consumers should be given the opportunity to learn about suitable alternatives before being abruptly punished for their — often unrealized — poor choices.
The food packaging industry is one example of a sector that is currently thriving, with more companies adapting and stepping forward to meet the demand for sustainable takeaway packaging.
These companies produce products that are entirely commercially compostable, recyclable and biodegradable while appreciating the importance of branding and marketing. Food vendors can now do their bit to support a serious environmental issue and look good doing it — both in terms of the physical appearance of their takeaway packaging and public perception.
While some of these products are plastic-free — such as Kraft boards, which are durable and can house hot and cold foods — sustainable companies hold a realistic view and understand that plastic cannot be done away with entirely — remember, it’s about taking each use of plastic and determining if its benefits outweigh the cost. Products such as deli bowls might contain less-harmful bioplastic, for example, but in these instances, it’s communicated to prospective buyers to maintain total transparency.
The crucial thing to remember is that using plastic is vital in many cases. The focus should be on acknowledging that it is often the best material for certain purposes, and encouraging society to be more mindful about unnecessary plastic use — it’s this that is having the most substantial negative impact on our environment.
The sooner that suppliers and consumers are made aware of the real impact of plastic use, the sooner we will begin to see a long-lasting change in plastic pollution for the better.
To sum it up
Plastic is a necessary evil in some industries like the health sector where hygiene and sanitation are paramount but there are still alternatives that should be further explored. And we can better wage the war on plastic packaging by identifying determines ethics across various sectors, educating and informing suppliers and consumers and working to change cultural habits. Encouraging positive reinforcement is another approach, in the way Starbucks rewards people for using recyclable cups. Plastic is, in short, vital in our lives to some degree but making better choices about unnecessary plastic use will have a far greater positive impact on our environment.
Photo courtesy of Pexels