The debate on single use plastics continues to rage hard as the world tries to figure out what we can replace them with. Biodegradable plastics? Compostable plastics? Paper? Metal? With each new material contender comes a nifty set of trade-offs – no recovery infrastructure, too carbon-intensive, less recyclable, too costly … the list goes on.
Of course, in our quest for convenience, we have created these unintended consequences and given ourselves one hell of a headache. Convenience is the key word here. We want it, we pursue it, we live our lives by it. Convenience – that’s the root we really need to tug at if we’re going to solve this problem.
I find the argument that less plastic packaging creates more food waste a fascinating one. We’re told we need this plastic to preserve chilled edibles for longer. As if fridges are now no longer enough.
Take a shrinkwrapped cucumber – that’s a prime example. I hate shrinkwrapped cucumbers. Cucumbers have their own packaging, it’s called cucumber skin. They reckon a cucumber resting in its own skin will lose 3.5% of its weight after just three days whereas a shrink-wrapped one loses 1.5% of its weight over two weeks.
The rationale goes that shrinkwrap keeps cucumbers fresher for longer. But … what if we actually ate that cucumber within three days? That’s a pretty radical idea, uh? What if we planned our meals each day, purchased only what we needed to eat, and ate it?
It wasn’t that long ago that most people did this. Growing up, I can remember my grandmother doing it. She loved food, loved feeding anyone who walked through her door, she cooked up daily feasts and there was never any waste (she grew her own cucumbers, by the way).
Now, this seems an impossible dream for many because we’ve created such constraints on our time and energy. The whole consumer experience is supposed to seamlessly integrate with our growing demands for hyper-convenience. And single use plastics were great – they really helped us out here – until we realised we were choking the life out of oceans with them.
I can’t see us wanting to sacrifice our new levels of portability for the benefit of the planet. Which is a shame. I’d personally like the world to slow down a bit. For us to consume less, or only what we need.
Instead, we’ll look to technology for the answers. We might manage to get the circular economy to work for those disposable resources deemed most problematic. And the trade-offs will continue, because they always do.