Time to pack in the packaging

By Emily Keal

© Metricman/Flickr

Supermarkets worldwide are guilty of using excessive packaging, especially plastic. This consumes huge amounts of energy and natural resources – around 8 per cent of the world’s annual oil production is used to manufacture plastic – and emits significant amounts of carbon dioxide during manufacture.

The world’s plastic addiction has created a continent-sized vortex of plastic waste, stretching all the way from Japan to Hawaii. Charles Moore, an American oceanographer, who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Trash Vortex, believes that about 100 million tonnes of plastic waste is circulating in the region.

According to UNEP, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have also been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds, which mistake them for food.

It is believed that plastic is the main contributor to debris in the sea, with 90 per cent of all litter being plastic. UNEP estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. The problem is so drastic that the European Union is piloting a scheme to pay fishermen to fish for plastic pollutants in the Mediterranean.

The sea-soup of plastic is increasing at an alarming rate, yet we could stop this now by using alternatives. Nearly every product we buy is over-packaged: toothpaste in a plastic tube, then also in a cardboard box, or fruit in nonrecyclable tubs instead of cardboard punnets. Vegetables are often in plastic punnets, then wrapped again in plastic film or netting. Cucumbers are wrapped tightly in film for no apparent reason. Some packaging is simply ridiculous, such as sandwiches in a bag, then in cardboard.

There are many alternative forms of packaging. For example, why buy plastic cartons when you can get milk in recyclable glass bottles? You could weigh up your veg in net, paper or hessian bags that can be reused or recycled.

Retailers have a massive influence on what we buy and use, so it’s vital that they start to offer alternatives. Worldwide, some retailers are working with governments to ban plastic bags. Governments around the world are also getting in on the act: 24 countries have an outright ban, eight of which are in Africa. Europe is less enthusiastic, with only Germany and Italy banning plastic bags.

We are told that it is good to recycle our plastic waste, but sadly only 19 per cent of the waste is recovered, with only 7 per cent of this actually being recycled. The majority of the rest goes to landfill, where it takes up to 1,000 years to break down. This is why plastic is not a sustainable product and we need alternatives on a large scale.

Emily Keal, 15, was an intern at Tunza magazine in summer 2011

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