Despite Industry Lies & Bribes, Single-Use Plastics Are On The Wane

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Single-use plastics are getting hammered everywhere you look. What was once considered “normal” is now seen as an incredibly destructive influence that threatens the health of the Earth and all of the creatures who call it home, especially humans. China has decided to phase out all single-use plastics over the next few years. Now the movement away from such plastics is picking up speed elsewhere. Here are a few examples.

Removing Plastic Packaging In Grocery Stores

Tesco plastic pledge
Image credit: Tesco

Tesco, a large supermarket chain in the UK, has announced that it is eliminating the plastic wrap used to bundle some products together on its shelves. It’s good marketing. Instead of buying one bottle of shampoo or one bottle of water, customers can buy a dozen of them all wrapped together in plastic. As good a sales tool as it is, it makes little sense to sacrifice the health of the Earth on the altar of convenience.

According to The Guardian, when the plan is fully implemented in March, 67 million pieces of plastic will be removed from the shelves at Tesco stores. That’s a start. In all, Tesco has pledged to eliminate 1 billion pieces of plastic from its stores this year. There were concerns that unbundling products would hurt sales but early trials of the new procedure have shown no negative results. The new policy does not apply to everything on the shelves. Vegetables, chocolate bars, beverages, and shower gels will still be bundled, at least for now.

“It’s great that Tesco are getting rid of multipack plastic packaging that’s completely pointless and are also pressuring their branded suppliers like Heinz and Branston to do the same,” said Fiona Nicholls, an oceans plastics campaigner for Greenpeace UK. “This is such an easy, common sense first step that all supermarkets should have done this long ago. We urge retailers to end the nonsense of double-plastic packaging on all products straight away and be bolder by introducing reusable and refillable packaging.”

Tesco has gotten praise for not just repackaging bulk items in paper or cardboard. Libby Peake, the head of resource policy at Green Alliance, said: “This contrasts with some of the other moves we’ve seen in the grocery sector where companies are sometimes replacing unnecessary single-use plastic items with equally unnecessary single-use items made from other materials.”

“This trend of substituting plastic for other materials, while maintaining the current disjointed packaging system, risks trading our current problems with plastic pollution for other environmental problems down the line,” said Peake. “An approach that tackles all unnecessary material use is a big part of what’s needed.”

Other retailers and consumer goods companies are also at work on cutting down their use of plastic. Greenpeace highlights Waitrose, Morrisons, Asda, and Marks & Spencer, which are trying out food dispensers and liquid refill stations. This is the best long term solution, because any single-use packaging item — including paper or cardboard — uses resources and cannot always be recycled, Greenpeace says.

“Recyclability” is the new buzzword in many industries, but it can be misleading. In many cases it amounts to little more than greenwashing, since less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled today. Sander Defruyt, who is in charge of the new plastics economy at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, tells The Guardian, “Globally, recycling rates are still very low. More than 40 years after the recycling symbol was introduced, less than 10% of plastic packaging is recycled. We cannot recycle our way out of the problems of plastic waste and pollution. More companies need to take action to eliminate the plastic we don’t need.” Are you sensing the tide is turning against plastics?  And not a moment too soon.

Down With Plastic Bags!

Single use plastic bags are a multi-billion dollar business worldwide. A lot of that money finds its way into the pockets of corrupt legislators who are more than happy to throw their constituents under the bus if there is a buck or two to be gained for themselves. Remember the “crying Indian” ad campaign from the 1970s? It was actually produced and paid for by the plastic bag industry to make us feel guilty about using the plastic bags they produced. Don’t blame us for making them. Blame yourselves for using them! To add insult to injury, the actor in that ad was Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian-American best known for portraying Native Americans.

50 years later, these same greedheads are bribing state legislatures to pass laws making it illegal for local communities to outlaw single-use plastics. The thinking is if they have enough stooges in their pocket at the state level, they can veto any attempts to restrict the use of their products by local authorities. But the pushback has begun.

The state of New York will institute a plastic bag ban in March of this year but not everyone is waiting until then. Wegmans, a large grocery chain with stores in the Empire State, is starting early. As of January 27, there will be no more single-use plastic bags at Wegmans, but customers can buy a paper bag for 5 cents. The money will be donated to local food banks, according to CNY Central.

Aldi and other supermarket chains say they will be in compliance with the new law when March 1 rolls around. Already many shoppers are bringing reusable bags with them.

Recycling Beer Cups In Milwaukee

Scrubbing Bubbles
Image credit: SC Johnson

SC Johnson headquarters is in Racine, Wisconsin. Recently, officials from the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team approached it with a novel idea. Every year 1.2 million single use beer cups are used and then thrown away inside the team’s home park, Miller Stadium. Even though there are containers throughout the stadium where patrons can dispose of those cups, few ever actually get recycled

Now the Brewers and SC Johnson have entered into a new partnership. Those drink cups will be collected in dedicated receptacles. From there, they will be picked up by John’s Disposal and transported to Placon in Madison, Wisconsin where they will be cleaned and flaked. Those flakes will be taken to Verdeco Recycling in Terra Haute, Indiana, where they will be processed into pellets that can be blow-molded. The pellets in turn will be turned into bottles for Scrubbing Bubbles by Logoplaste.

“We are thrilled to add this initiative to one of many projects our company is worked on to reduce plastic waste around the world,” said Fisk Johnson, CEO of SC Johnson according to a report by the Milwaukee Journal Times. “As many great attributes as plastic has, our planet is facing a plastic-waste crisis.” He added this is the first time a company has agreed to take and recycle plastic from a US sports venue.

“Even when we put something in the blue recycle bin, only a small fraction of that usually actually gets recycled,” Johnson said. “(Plastic waste) is a complex problem, and no one company or no one organization can solve it alone. Now, as a company, in order to fight plastic pollution we’ve created partnerships with a number of different organizations and now, I’m very proud to say, the Milwaukee Brewers.

“So, instead of having all of those cups hauled off to landfills or taken to some unknown destination, we’re going to turn the cups here in the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium into Scrubbing Bubbles bottles. And as a first-of-a-kind initiative in Major League Baseball, our hope — my hope — is that other stadiums and businesses are going to follow suit and make an even bigger difference in this critical issue.”

The Takeaway

What do you call an economic system that allows giant corporations to pollute the environment in pursuit of profits but pay nothing to clean up their own mess? Many call it capitalism, as if greed somehow trumps the health of the Earth and its human population. Plastic pollution is a global scourge and it is unconscionable that the people who make plastics are not required to address the harm their products do.

You mother made you pick up your socks and help with the dishes occasionally, didn’t she? Why can’t the world’s major companies be asked to do the same? Letting them off the hook with a shrug of the shoulders and a namby pamby excuse about “Oh, well. That’s how capitalism works and there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” is ridiculous.

But times are changing. The images of distant beaches overwhelmed by a tide of plastics can’t be ignored any more. You can vote with your wallets when you go to the store. Refuse to use single-use plastic bags and complain to store managers about products that are encased in unnecessary packaging. We can’t stop companies from offering such products for sale, but we can refuse to support their loathsome habits by choosing not to buy or use the plastics they try so hard to foist upon us.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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