The Naked Truth: The Real Reason Behind Our Plastic Problem
Plastic was a seemingly genius new material developed back in 1907. It has since saved lives, empowered whole countries and provided an accessible means for everything from tools, to shelter. Plastic has been used to make vehicles lighter, so that they consume less fuel, and keep food fresher for longer. Not to mention the hygienic benefits in the healthcare setting where it helps to save lives. So what went wrong?
The cheapness of plastic allowed manufacturers to market convenience into their products. While single-use plastic might have been a brilliant idea for operating theatres in front line hospitals, the birth of disposable packaging was most definitely a mistake. But convenience is quite an attractive proposition and plastic filled humans desire to save both time and effort – two traits that the advertising industry has preyed on since the 60's.
Manufacturers saw pound signs, growth and expansion. They employed advertising agencies to increase demand and sales by making us feel like our lives would be better, richer, easier with whatever new product was being touted. Within the shady realms of marketing, these manufacturers would only communicate one or two key benefits, and conceal any negatives.
As easy as that, the well oiled gravy train was set in motion with little care or responsibility on what we, as a society, should do with these products when we are finished with them.
Fast forward to this morning…
Today, we are at an unfortunate crossroads. We’ve learnt a lot about the devastating impact plastic production and pollution is having on our planet. With spikes in the earth’s temperature, greenhouse gas emissions AND the plight of our oceans, we now have a big mess to untangle, human habits included. We know it’s not as simple as paying council tax and assuming that our waste collection service will make this problem go away. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent television series War On Plastic highlighted just how broken the system really is.
A lack of transparency
Plastic is woven into almost all aspects of our lives but often it’s done in a way that’s not clear to the consumer. It was revealed on War On Plastic that wet wipes can contain up to 84% plastic, with no clear messaging on the packet. Most likely in an attempt to protect sales figures, rather than our planet, big corporations are too profit focused to do the right thing. When approached about it, they all declined to add this information to their packaging until a new EU regulation will make it a necessity.
This is possibly the same reasoning behind plastic wrapped fruit and veg in the supermarkets. Supermarkets run on data, BIG data. They know exactly what sells and if the data suggests that more consumers are choosing convenience over environmental soundness, then that’s what they’re going to offer us. We must vote with our feet and our money. Supermarkets start filtering out our options, removing the loose fruit & veg option, or making pricing less clear (offering a price per gram instead of a unit price) or making the price of loose produce prohibitively expensive.
Supermarkets and advertising giants have changed consumer habits many times, and are far better placed to bring about positive changes. But will they?
"Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want"
~ Anna Lappe ~
Legislation is vital…
With plastic manufacturers picking up just 10% of recycling bills, and taxpayers picking up the rest, the scales are undoubtedly tipped in favour of big corporations. If true recycling reform comes into play, forcing manufacturers to foot at least 80% of the recycling costs, then prices of food and drink wrapped in single-use plastic are likely to go up, and sales will go down. Saddled with the increased recycling bill, plastic will no longer be the cash cow it once was, and alternatives will be invested in.
When brands are legally made to advise consumers on the plastic content of a product like wet wipes, buying habits will see a shift. This is why the likes of Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson resist doing it.
If supermarkets have an obligation to the waste generated, rather than passing it on the consumer, then perhaps they will start giving us a revised offering in the produce section. True change comes through legislation. Our personal habits can help inspire others, raise awareness and make a meaningful change to the environment, but we need to increase pressure for our governments and legislators to enforce recycling reform and make manufacturers responsible for the materials they produce.
The real reason behind our plastic problem, is the system. There’s too much money to be made with single use plastic. It’s a cheap commodity that offers above all else, convenience. Unfortunately, the human population values convenience highly and until recently, brands and supermarkets have not bothered to offer us alternatives.
A change in perspective
Right now, millions are choosing to value sustainability over convenience. Brands and supermarkets are taking note, though perhaps not moving as quickly as we would like. Legislation change is something that is certainly in discussion, but we need to engage communities and keep the pressure on.