In her series looking at how we can reduce waste, reuse and recycle, service improvement officer Jenny Lowes tackles the question: why can’t we just replace plastic with other materials such as glass, metal or paper?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer when it comes to understanding which material has the least environmental impact. It’s not just plastics that can cause problems if not disposed of correctly – metal and glass do not break down and can cause land and marine litter and those items that do break down often emit greenhouse gases.
There are several factors to consider:

  • weight
  • how long and far it has to travel
  • how much of the material is recycled
  • how it is disposed of

There are no easy choices and the list goes on – other factors come in to play, such as land and water use.

So why is plastic is used?

It may be, that when compared with other materials, for a specific purpose, it has been found that:

  • Plastic provides an air, water and hygiene-tight barrier for perishable and easily-damaged goods. This helps prolong shelf life and reduce waste (food waste is a huge contributor to carbon emissions, so this is very important in the fight against climate change). For example, when a cucumber is shrink-wrapped its life is extended by a whopping 15 days. This is crucial because if food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest carbon emitter in the world (see last month’s NY Now article).
  • Plastic weighs less than many of the alternatives, which reduces transport needs, and therefore carbon emissions
  • It is durable – it won’t smash like glass or disintegrate like paper
  • It protects the product
  • It is easy to print information onto, such as food labels and allergy information
  • It can be moulded into any shape, e.g. milk bottle handles, which makes it easy to use
  • It is watertight and fulfils health and safety requirements – keeping substances such as bleach and medicines safely stored.

When it comes to sustainability, lots of factors need to be considered. There is no straight forward ‘best’ option, it’s a case of balancing lots of different considerations as well as the most functional way to package a product.

Ideally, all packaging would be made from recycled material, be designed to be recyclable and we would have the means to recycle it easily wherever we are.

If plastic packaging is banned, then alternative packaging materials need to be used. Right now, paper, glass, or aluminium can’t always perform the function plastic does.

But we can focus on banning non-recyclable plastic.

Unnecessary plastics are already being reduced or replaced by alternatives – things like plastic straws, stirrers and disposable cutlery. The driving force behind this initiative is the UK Plastics Pact, a collaboration between businesses, UK governments and NGOs to create a circular economy for plastics. By 2025, the UK Plastics Pact aims to have 100 per cent of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable.

A new tax on plastic packaging manufactured in, or imported into the UK, that does not contain at least 30 per cent recycled plastic is being introduced from 1 April 2022. Plastic packaging tax (PPT) is an environmental tax designed to provide a financial incentive for businesses to use recycled plastic in the manufacture of plastic packaging. The government envisages this will create greater demand for recycled plastic, stimulating increased levels of recycling of plastic waste and diverting it away from landfill or incineration.

In the meantime, we all have a role to play in reducing plastic pollution. By reducing and reusing as much as we can and then recycling what’s left we can keep plastic in use for longer, where it has value, rather than throwing it away and causing damage to the environment.

The Clear on Plastics  campaign is run by the sustainability not-for-profit organisation WRAP. They provide information about plastics so we can make informed and sustainable choices.

Their aim is to give people clear information about the complex world of plastics, waste and recycling – for instance, explaining the role of plastics and demonstrating the balance between the benefits and drawbacks of alternatives.

If you want to try and reduce your plastic usage have a look at our plastic recycling webpage.

My number one tip is to get a reusable glass bottle milk delivery – there are plenty of ‘milkmen’ in North Yorkshire, so check locally within your community. It’s reducing and reusing on your doorstep and it’s such a simple and convenient action to take.