Plastic is an omnipresent material that shapes our lives from the moment we wake up. It is so common that we don’t consciously notice it around our house, like the kettle, television remote and toothbrush. Yet we get flooded with campaigns and news stories about how bad plastic is for the environment and wildlife.
Plastic is an integral part of modern life – we use it in cars, supermarkets, at work and even in hospitals. So the issue is not plastic itself, rather the way humans dispose of it that presents risks to sea creatures and the environment.
Plastic allows us to lead normal modern lives and can even save lives. It can also be beneficial for the environment in certain circumstances where it prevents more food waste through damaged fruits and vegetables that no one will buy. We also use plastic in the equipment that plants and harvests forests and farms.
The issues arise with disposal and recycling of plastic
Plastic is a versatile and useful material, but the way we dispose of it can have far-reaching consequences for the environment. Plastic is not biodegradable, meaning that it won’t break down for hundreds of years if left in the environment or ocean. It’s so durable that it can still be a risk to animals decades after the plastic product has been manufactured, consumed and disposed of.
Problems also arise at recycling facilities. Not all plastics can be recycled. Plastic waste arriving at a recycling facility needs to be separated and sorted. Certain types of plastic need to be batched together before being processed. For example, polyethylene can’t be recycled with polypropylene.
Plastic drinking bottles have three different types of plastic – the flexible bottle, the hard cap and the film-like label – which all need to be separated before being recycled. Even the colour of the plastic affects its recyclability. Like colours need to be batched and processed together to avoid colour contamination. Some colours even render plastic totally un-recyclable.
This all means that recycling facilities have a huge responsibility on their hands. They need to take time to separate, sort and batch all the plastic waste by composition and colour. This is labour-intensive and time-consuming work.
The benefits of using plastic packaging
As mentioned before, plastic packing does have its benefits, especially in the retail and agricultural sectors. Plastic crates, wraps and punnets protect the fruits and vegetables while they are transported from the farm to the supermarket. Plastic packaging can also be used to seal in air and keep moisture out of food products, such as biscuits and sugar.
Plastic packaging protects food from the elements and from being damaged in transit, which cuts down on transport costs and food waste in the long run. However, thin plastic film such as cling wrap cannot be recycled at most facilities and so becomes a risky waste item when discarded.
Many people argue that fruits and vegetables have natural skin that protects them from damage, and so plastic packaging is a wasteful expense. Indeed, this is true – especially when bananas and cucumbers are being individually wrapped in plastic film and punnets. But consumers have become so aware of the look of food that even the slightest blemish means we leave it on the shelf in favour of something more perfect.
These instances of over-protected food serve little practical purpose for the convenience of having good-looking fruits and vegetables. Consumers are starting to notice these instances at supermarkets and are challenging food suppliers and retailers to cut down on the excessive plastic packaging.
How to tackle plastic waste
The problem in the disposal of plastic waste doesn’t lie solely with supermarkets, waste management providers and manufacturers. Individual consumers and citizens also have to play their part in reducing plastic waste in the environment.
Personal action results in widespread change and the choices we make regarding plastic waste can have more of an impact than we initially think. Refusing that straw at the restaurant or bringing your own bag to the supermarket to carry groceries are small choices that make a big difference over time.
Lifestyle change and a greater awareness of our consumption habits are necessary. Start taking your own coffee mug to coffee shops rather than using disposable cups. Invest in some good-quality reusable straws at home. Opt to buy food items that aren’t wrapped in excessive plastic. Reuse plastic bottles at home if you’re going to buy bottled water and energy drinks.
All of these minor decisions will help you cut down your plastic waste and have less of an impact on the environment for the remainder of your life. We need to be ambassadors of change to see the results we desire.
Averda is a leading waste management provider with over 50 years of experience across three continents. Through growth, transformation and engagement, we strive to find new ways of managing waste while protecting the community and environment.
By pairing international expertise with local insights, we have secured our position as one of South Africa’s most respected providers of waste management and industrial cleaning services. We also operate in the recycling, pipe inspection, CCTV, infrastructure inspection, hydro-demolition, high-pressure water jetting and catalyst handling industries.
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