Don’t get me wrong, plastic is absolutely a bad guy. Single use plastics and coatings have a horrendous chemical composition that are life altering for people, animals and our planet. It’s criminal they have been allowed to take such a foundational foothold in industry for so long.
I distinctly remember chatting to the owner of a plastics manufacturing business at a dinner party over 10 years ago. We had agreed that there were some very toxic and hazardous plastics being manufactured. He explained to me that he worked from home on the days when particularly nasty plastics were on the production schedule because fumes in the air would travel over to the office and make him so unwell that he would be in bed for days. Hmmm, I wonder how his employees were? Or people working and living nearby?.
I asked why he kept making them - I was curious, surely if he reduced his range to the less hazardous and more safe formulations it would encourage customers to buy from the better, safer products? It seemed like a no brainer to me - these products began their assault during manufacture - releasing toxic chemicals into the air and run off into water systems. They then hit people again when used, and a third time when disposed of.
He shrugged and explained that if he didn’t make them someone else would. Urgh.We know waste IS a big problem, but environmental and human damage occurs throughout the product life cycle - during manufacture, use and then disposal.
There is a passion and commitment behind the no plastic and plastic free movement that is gaining momentum - lobbying for change, providing plastic free options and building support.
The thing we’re missing at the moment is perspective. We don’t just want plastic free at any cost. We can’t afford to exchange one problem for another. We need to know replacement materials for plastics both respect people and planet, do the job we need them to, as well as focusing on a circular system to minimise resources and impact.
Some examples that come to mind are the packaging and lifestyle materials made from waste coffee grounds. It sounds great to use a waste product, but we don’t actually know how these are made - the ingredients or the process. Adhesives and commercial binding materials aren’t likely to be eco friendly at all.
Another industry that has popped up are fabrics made from recycled plastics. T shirts, shorts and active wear are popular products for these fabrics. Tick for using recycled materials, but the massive cost is shedding plastic microfibres into our waterways, A LOT of fibres. Ecologist Mark Browne's landmark shoreline study proved this way back in 2011 - but that wasn't the only shocking news - no one wanted to know about it. Commercial interests are primarily concerned with, well, their interests. This creates the plastic ocean and plastic marine life we see captioned in headlines. Manufacturing uses the term ‘fit for purpose’ and in order to be of any real benefit; our measure of ‘fit for purpose’ needs to include the impact throughout the product lifecycle as well as the product function.
Winding back the damage humans have caused and creating a sustainable existence in harmony with our environment needs a wholistic approach.