If you have read any of our previous blog posts, you know that we care about the environment. Over the past three years, we have gradually switched cleaning products and household items for sustainable alternatives.
Sadly though, plastics are everywhere, and they are difficult to fully cut out of your weekly trip to the grocery store! Most products in the supermarket are packaged in some type of plastic, and it can be hard to find package free alternatives.
Since you might not know the consequences of plastic products and packages produced worldwide, we dive into the subject of plastics. We’ll explain why we try to limit our plastic consumption, and why you should, too!
Buying packaged products
We limit buying packaged products. If anything can be bought package free, we feel like it’s better to opt for that item rather than one wrapped or bagged in plastic.
One of the ways in which we limit our plastic consumption is by visiting the local fruit and veg market twice a week to buy package free vegetables. Most produce sold at the market is sold without plastic wrapping, in contrast to products sold in the supermarket.
We visit this market carrying two backpacks and some reusable linen bags. Wageningen is called the ‘city of life sciences’ and handing out plastic bags for free is not legal in this country.
It hence baffles us that every single week, we have to remind these people (whom we have visited for years) that we would prefer if they did not put their produce in a plastic bag before handing it over. They give us an odd look when we say that we’ll carry them in our reusable bags instead. It almost feels as if we’re being rude by turning down a ‘free’ plastic bag.
This just goes to show that plastic is everywhere, and we’re all just too used to it. And this brings us to say that by no means do we live a so-called ‘zero waste’ lifestyle. We still buy (food related) packaged products.
Many items that we regularly buy are wrapped in plastic packaging of some form, and we can’t find them plastic free. We recycle these items properly, but do so knowing that we’re harming the environment, and it feels bad.
We hence incorporate a large amount of plant material in our diet. This is very healthy, delicious, but opens a way to buy plastic free products along the way.
We have also chosen to exclude certain unnecessary items from our diet, such as processed sweets and other snacks.
Luckily, it seems that bulk stores are becoming more popular in the United States.
We have yet to find one in the Netherlands, and would most likely buy some of our products in bulk if we did have the option. But when buying in bulk, it’s important to consider that it might eventually lead to food waste when you stock too much.
Although you might know that plastic is not the world’s most environment friendly material, not everybody knows the complete life-cycle of plastic. So let’s dive in!
Plastics are chemically formed products created in oil refineries. Here, oil and gas molecules are chemically bound to form plastic. So not only is plastic chemical, but it also includes the use of precious oil, a valuable and limited resource.
There are numerous types of plastic, but we can generally divide them into two main categories: thermoplastics and thermosets.
Around 80% of all plastic products produced worldwide are made from thermoplastic. This material can be melted and reverted to the original plastic pellets. Thermoplastics can hence be reused.
Solid thermoset products can not be repurposed, but they are not used in food packaging.
Different types of thermoplastic have different characteristics. These types can be recognized by the recycling logo that’s often visible on the packaging. This logo lists a code and/or a number that can be linked back to the specific material used in the production of the item.
Why is plastic packaging frowned upon?
Although a large amount of plastic packaging is recyclable, there are two main things that go wrong.
Plastic is often discarded in black bag waste, together with other non-plastic waste. It then ends up in a landfill, which is basically a large heap of waste that compresses over time under the weight of waste that gathers on top. This landfill keeps growing daily, as the waste does not compost. Garbage thrown away in the bin does not miraculously disappear from the planet.
As the plastic compresses over time, rain water absorbs small toxic particles. The compound that forms is called leachate, which leaks into groundwater, streams, and lakes. Leachate harms ecosystems worldwide. It is one of the most ubiquitous causes for deaths of fresh- and seawater fauna on the planet.
But the landfills are not the only places in which plastic can cause damage.
If you have ever walked on a beach, you will have seen hundreds of pieces of packaging, and plastic bottles. Although it’s incredibly easy to take our waste with us, not every person thinks twice about what they do. Wherever we go, we can see plastic waste around us.
Plastic that is left outside can easily travel for years, since plastic is not biodegradable and stays around for as long as a thousand years. It goes through streams and rivers, to eventually end up in oceans.
In the oceans on Earth, there are actually five massive gyres of plastic waste. Here, marine animals get trapped, or mistake small plastic objects as food.
Quoted from the Plastic Soup Foundation: “Every minute, the equivalent of one full garbage truck of plastic trash is dumped in the sea. That is 1440 trucks per 24 hours and 8 BILLION kilos per year.”
If plastic breaks down in smaller pieces, small fish can consume it. When this fish is in turn eaten by a bigger animal, plastic slowly travels up the food chain until eventually, it ends up on our plates (for those that don’t follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle).
Think about that carefully. The plastic bottle you left laying on the beach may end up in your tuna steak one day!
But plastic is recyclable!
‘But plastic is recyclable’, we hear you say.
Well, yes. Thermoplastics are indeed recyclable, but they can sadly only be repurposed for a very limited amount of times, depending on the material in question.
Plastic bottles for example, can only be recycled once. They can’t be turned into new plastic bottles, since the quality of the melted plastic is too low to do so.
Often, plastic is recycled into fabric and turned into clothing items like t-shirts and shoes. This can be referred to as downcycling, since these items themselves are not recyclable. They will eventually end up in a landfill, and we still end up with the same problem we explained prior.
Bottle caps, made from a different type of plastic than the bottles, can be repurposed twice. They can, for example, be turned in to bottles. But eventually, they will be turned into a different type of lower quality material, which again will end up in a landfill.
So, how can I limit my plastic consumption?
Although just like us, you might not have the option to minimize your plastic consumption as far as you would like, there are always small steps that you can take.
The next time you head to school, take a reusable water bottle. If you can’t live without a cup of coffee on your day at the office, bring along a reusable coffee cup.
Always carry an extra bag along in case you pop into the supermarket on your way home and remember to bring a drinking straw when you go out for lunch!
But, there are also other types of packaging. Some products come in a variety of packaging materials. Besides plastics, some items can be sold in glass or aluminium.
The increasingly popular ‘zero waste’ movement advocates for the use of reusable glass containers and metal tins.
Soon, we will dive into the subject of other packaging materials, because we want to know if they really are as great as people make them out to be!