The Plastic Phenomenon: Solution or Pollution?

by - June 17, 2019

Plastic pollution: probably the most talked about conservation problem out there. We can largely thank the media for that; Blue Planet II for me was the turning point, and since then you can hardly log onto any media platform and not see something to do with plastic. In this post I want to talk about how plastic took over the world as a solution to a lot of problems, but quickly became one of the leading causes of pollution in the ocean.

The vast majority (maybe even all) of talk around plastic nowadays is very negative. Plastic is a pollutant, it's destroying our oceans and our terrestrial landscapes. Plastic undeniably is massive problem in our oceans especially. It's all over the world destroying marine life. Everyone knows this. 

Humans' reliance on plastic is something I think we've all started to re-evaluate. Many people try now to live plastic free, or at least using as little plastic as possible. Many countries have even gone as far to ban single use plastic (yay!). 

Anyone who has joined this trend, and consciously tried to use less plastic has probably realised that in some instance, it's very easy to live without plastic. Your morning coffee doesn't need to be in a plastic cup, with a plastic lid; a tupperwareserves just as nicely as plastic polystyrene; a bamboo toothbrush works just as well as a plastic one; and so the list goes on. 

However, you would also have come across some major obstacles on your journey to a plastic free life. The main one being, if you don't produce all your own food, you don't have a say on the packaging. (Yes maybe if we all clubbed together and boycotted all brands that use plastic packaging and piled on the public pressure, maybe they would all stop but that takes massive global effort and we can't expect people who just want to shop for their families to join a boycott of essentially, all food). My point is, some things that you buy come in plastic packaging, and although you'd rather they didn't, you still need to buy them. It's annoying. Here you are trying to make environmentally conscious decisions, but the majority of supermarket food is in plastic packaging. 

Herein lies the seemingly forgotten secret of where the plastic pollution problem comes from: plastic is actually amazing. 

The reason we have so much plastic and became so reliant on it is because it's so versatile, useful, and durable. These features allowed plastic to take over the world. We didn't have the foresight to see that these same features would cause a massive environmental disaster. We just saw this material that could solve a lot of problems, and ran with it. 

The reason plastic is so hard to avoid, particularly in supermarkets, is because one of the primary uses and most amazing features of plastic is its ability to keep food fresh. Imagine how much food would have been wasted globally if it wasn't for plastic. 

What's worse? Food waste or plastic? This is a ridiculous question because of course the answer is: it depends. But if you really had to way it up and consider which of these two phenomenonscauses more a problem globally, I would go with food waste. 

Without plastic, we would need to massively improve the way we produce and sell food. Imported fruit would arrive to shops brown and mushy. Even processed carbohydrates, like pasta, would never last as long if they weren't covered. Plastic allows us to globally trade food without having to throw tonnes and tonnes of it away. 

Now I know there is a solution to this, which can be found in most cities worldwide: zero waste stores. These places (there are lots of different brands) are awesome. If you haven't been to one, I do recommend a visit. 

Lot of these shops have overcome these problems with very simple solutions. Take the pasta example. In these types of shop, you can bring a tupperwareand fill it with pasta from a dispenser. Like a pick'n'mixsweet stand, you take as much pasta as you want and pay for it based on weight (usually). The same is done with all kinds of products. The pasta is kept fresh in its dispenser, and you can reuse your tupperwareas many times as you want. 

Bingo. We're on to a winner here. So why do most people still shop in conventional supermarkets? 

Convenience. That's my guess. 

Using myself as an example, living in Cape Town there are many of these zero waste type shops in the city. But the city is massive and the closest one to me is about a 20 minute drive away. I don't have a car so mostly rely on Uber/friends to get around the city (except the university which has a brilliant bus network) as public transport isn't always safe. There is a supermarket less than 5 minutes (walking) from my house. I do all my shopping there. Does this mean I use more plastic than I would at a zero waste store? Yes of course it does. But if I drove (in an Uber) to the zero waste store every time I needed to buy food, imagine what that would do to my carbon footprint (not to mention how much I would spend on Ubers). Obviously when I shop I try to avoid plastic as much as possible, but I would rather walk to the shops and use a little more plastic, than drive just to avoid plastic. 

We shouldn't beat ourselves up over every bit of plastic we use. We should keep always striving to be as environmentally friendly as possible, and use as little plastic as possible. But sometimes it's unavoidable, and that's okay. Sometimes it's better to use a bit more plastic, than drive somewhere/throw food away, and that's okay. 

My opinion is that plastic pollution is a big problem. I think banning single use plastic is a great step forward to minimise the impact of plastics. We also need to do something about the plastic already on the planet: there are some innovative ideas to deal with this coming out (which I won't delve into now), but we are heading in the right direction.

Plastic is a hot topic, and the momentum this issue has gained is amazing. I would never want to dissuade anyone from trying to reduce their plastic consumption. But plastic is just one problem. And we shouldn't forget everything else in the quest to rid the world of all plastic.

Plastic I have seen on beaches/in the sea.

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