Something you might not know about plastic
Do you know about an island that has formed off the North Pacific, halfway between Hawaii and California? It is called the plastic vortex, or seventh continent… At 1.6 million square kilometres, it is three times the size of mainland France. Cigarette butts, bottles, food packaging, bags, corks, cotton buds, fishing tackle… 80 000 tonnes of waste have already accumulated there.
And this type of large waste, which represents pollution visible to the naked eye and already threatens the marine balance, is only the tip of the iceberg. Then there is the problem of microplastics. Almost invisible and difficult to quantify, there are currently between 82 and 578 000 tonnes of them in the oceans, according to Ifremer.
Why is it so? The growth of so-called “single-use” products is now being pointed out. It is in this sense that regulatory measures are being put in place. The use phase of plastics is often very short and the production and end-of-life phases contribute significantly to several environmental impact indicators.
It is evident that we have to reduce pour plastic use. And here here are some good places to start.
Plastic use can be regulated by law. In France, for example, the AGEC law sets several targets for the reduction, reuse and recycling of single-use plastics. It was interesting to observe how in several month plastic bags for fruits and vegetables were replaced by craft carton ones. They still have a transparent plastic part which can’t be recycled together with paper, but it’s already a good way to start
Manufacturers are eco-designing products so that they are adjusted in weight and size, made of environmentally friendly materials, recyclable, etc. Processing and production technologies also need to be improved so that they are more efficient and use less material and energy, while achieving the same performance in terms of quality.
Finally, at the citizen level, consumer choice is important: consumers can reduce their waste by refusing what they can do without, by favouring re-use, by avoiding single use, etc. Sorting is also important so that, after collection, the sorting centres direct the waste towards the right recycling and recovery channels and so that new plants can be set up to recycle what is not yet recycled.
In which way plastic packaging can be treated?
- Eliminated : burned, buried etc. Not a healthy-planet way
- Reused: not every packaging is suitable though. There are initiatives to remplace one-use plastic with reusable glass one in a take-away areas.
The principle is simple. The consumer gives a monetary deposit when he buys his dish in a returnable box from a partner trader (restaurant, caterer, baker, etc.). Once they have used it, they return the container, often made of glass, to the trader or another partner trader, and thus recover their deposit. The organisation or the restaurant owner then takes care of the washing. And the can is put back into circulation. Reuse helps to “offset” the initial impact of the manufacture of a package, the most negative step from an environmental point of view.
This concept was popular before around 1980, but than it disappeared due to popularity of one-use plastic containers.
One of the direction for amelioration is on the restaurant side. For them reusable packaging means extra work (collecting, washing, storing deposits, etc.), and sometimes a financial cost. The reusable container is a little more expensive per unit than the disposable packaging (30 centimes against 10 centimes on average). Here can help the abonements and reductions for restaurateurs
Another problem is the challenge of delivery. Although more and more retailers seem to be interested in take-away deposit boxes, delivery of these containers is still very marginal. This is because the large platforms, such as Uber Eats or Deliveroo, take a commission on the deposit if it is an order for a dish in a reusable box and do not deduct the VAT on this deposit. Therefore, it costs the consumer more. It impossible to collaborate with cooperatives of bicycle deliverers, which are more ethical, to face tackle this problem.
- Recycled with energy valorisation
Even though It is important to consider that there is now a very wide range of plastics, which differ according to the polymers used and the additives they contain — colouring agents, UV filters, thermal stabilisers, etc. — depending on the properties intended for the product. This fact can pose a problem in terms of mechanical recycling, just as waste that is too complex, made up of different mixed resins and certain additives, does not make it possible to obtain a recycled material of sufficient quality. Eco-design towards a simplification of compositions and better recyclability is the first lever for improvement.
And what about Bioplastics? I got that question on my exam about eco-conception and made a mistake to say that bioplastic means biodegradable. Let’s make it clear once and forever.
Name bioplastic has something to do with the composition of the plastic and in particular to the resources used which are derived from biomass. This can be maize, potato, sugar cane or algae crops, which in any case require the use of agricultural land. Some biobased plastics are compostable, others are not.
Regarding “biodegradable plastics”, the use of this term alone is meaningless. The AGEC law in France even prohibits this mention on products. It is necessary to define under which conditions, in which environment, or in how long the waste can degrade.
When we talk about “compostable plastic”, we are talking about biodegradation in a composting environment under well-defined conditions.