Plastic Watch: Five Flaws in the EU’s Single-Use Plastics Plan

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The European Parliament late last month overwhelmingly approved a  plan to ban certain types of single-use plastic, recycle others, and make producing companies more accountable for what happens to such waste. The European Council may approve this measure as soon as this month, with the directive becoming law by the end of this year, according to the Guardian, in European parliament approves sweeping ban on single-use plastics.

The Independent’s account foreshadows possible problems with implementing the directive in European Parliament votes to ban single-use plastics in bid to tackle pollution:

The regulations will now have to be approved in talks with member states, some of which are likely to push back against the strict new rules.

Under the directive, single use items such as ballon sticks, cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, and stirrers will be banned be 2021, while 90% of plastic bottles would be recycled by 2025.

For other items, e.g., beverage cups, food containers, plastic bags, packets and wrappers, and wet wipes and sanitary towels – greater responsibility will be placed on producers to redesign products and mitigate plastics use.

Measures would also require tobacco companies to cover collection and processing of cigarette butts – reducing those entering the environment by 80% over the ensuing 12 years – and producers of fishing gear to collect  50% of  lost or abandoned fishing gear each year, according to the Independent. The fishing gear provision would have the most significant impact – if actually implemented and enforced – as abandoned fishing gear comprises about 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is three times the size of France (see my previous post for further details, Plastic Watch: Great Pacific Garbage Patch Grows).

Good news, no?

Not so fast. While this EU action is certainly better than nothing– and a step beyond what countries including the United States and Japan have thus far failed to do– a bit of scrutiny suggests ecstatic celebration may be premature.

First Flaw: Lax Deadlines

The EU has been mulling restrictions for what seems to this observer to have been forever, while meanwhile, the rubbish accumulates.

According to the directive:

The amount of plastic marine litter in oceans and seas is growing, to the detriment of ecosystems, biodiversity and potentially human health, and causes widespread concern. At the same time, valuable material that could be brought back into the economy is lost, once littered. Plastic makes up 80-85% of the total number of marine litter items, measured through beach counts.

Single Use Plastic (SUP) items represent about half of all marine litter items found on European beaches by counts. The 10 most found SUP items represent 86% of all SUP items (constituting thus 43% of all marine litter items found on European beaches by count). Fishing gear containing plastics accounts for another 27% of marine litter items found on European beaches. This initiative focuses therefore on the 10 most found SUP and fishing gear, which together represent around 70% of these marine litter items by count.

Plastics is widely available, persistent, and often has toxic and other harmful impacts. Due to its persistency, the impacts of plastic litter are growing as each year more plastic waste accumulates in the oceans. Plastic residues are now found in many marine species – sea turtles, seals, whales, birds as well as in several species of fish and shell fish and therefore enter the food chain. In addition to harming the environment and potentially human health, plastic marine litter damages activities such as tourism, fisheries and shipping.

Given the time the magnitude of the problem- and the time the EU has wasted kicking it around – the proposed deadlines, for banning specific items, and for meeting recycling targets – lack ambition. And for other types of items where the onus falls on producers, the timetable is especially woofy.

Contrast this to Vanuatu, which this year adopted – and then implemented – a single-use plastics ban, as discussed further in If Vanuatu Can Ban Single-Use Plastics, So Can the Other Commonwealth Countries.

Second Flaw: Undue Reliance on Recycling Fairy, Rather than Outright Reduction

The single-use directive is part of a broader strategy that otherwise places undue reliance on the recycling fairy – a problem I discussed in this January post, EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late?, discussing adoption of a  European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. That includes a requirement to ensure that all plastic packaging is recyclable by 2030.

As I noted in that post:

The goal of the new strategy is to “transform the way plastic products are designed, used, produced and recycled in the EU. Better design of plastic products, higher plastic waste recycling rates, more and better quality recyclates will help boosting the market for recycled plastics. It will deliver greater added value for a more competitive, resilient plastics industry”…[my emphasis]

That, to my mind, is the wrong goal. Instead, the EU should abandon that neoliberal rhetoric and instead pursue a drastic reduction in consumption of all plastics, that extends beyond the items covered by the latest directive.

Others have also debunked  the recycling fallacy;  see this September piece in The Independent, Everything you’ve been told about plastic is wrong – the answer isn’t recycling:

It’s clear that something needs to change, and it’s not about recycling. If we want to truly address the devastating impact of single-use plastic the answer is simple: governments must focus on stopping its production entirely.

Alas, the latest EU directive only bans outright some single-use plastic, and fudges what’s done with the rest. Over to The Independent again:

There are a small number of contexts in which single-use plastic is unavoidable, but the vast majority of it thoughtless and unnecessary. If corporations’ profits were increased by using other types of packaging – or none at all – we would see a real change in the environmental impact of our waste. Consumers can already choose to opt out of plastic, but it’s not easy. Sourcing things like food, toiletries, household products and electronics without plastic packaging is time-consuming and can be expensive. Living a sustainable life should not be a left-field choice for the elite, it should be the norm for us all. The onus is on political leaders to make it impossible to profit from manufacturing single-use plastics.


Third Flaw: Fracking Begets Plastic, and Thereby Exacerbates Global Warming

Another benefit that would follow from drastically reducing use of plastics outright rather than recycling is that less production of plastic would reduce global warming. The US petrochemical industry has mounted a campaign to create a plastics belt in the former rust belt, using fracked natural gas, as reported by DeSmogBlog last week in Why Plans to Turn America’s Rust Belt into a New Plastics Belt Are Bad News for the Climate. Reduced demand for plastic would stymie these plans. I’ve written more generally about the link between fracking and ramping up plastics production  in January in Fracking Boom Further Spurs Plastics Crisis.

Just a short aside here: I do understand that plastic is lighter than some packaging alternatives, and thus, eliminating its use for certain applications might increase the weight of shipping and thereby increase the use of fossil fuels. But surely that’s a small consideration next to the ramp up in supply of unnecessary plastics arising from the fracking boom that the DeSmogBlog piece and my previous post discussed.

Fourth Flaw: Recycling Capacity

I recently posted on the crisis in worldwide waste disposal caused by China’s decision last year to ban plastic imports for recycling in Waste Watch: US Dumps Plastic Rubbish in Southeast Asia. Countries continue to create waste and  export it for processing elsewhere, overwhelming the recycling capacity of many countries that have accepted it, and in some instances, encouraging the growth of illegal plastic recycling facilities, as The Wire discusses further in As Global Plastic Waste Piles Up, Malaysia Struggles Not to Turn into a ‘Trash Can’. Some communities that have previously recycled have in some cases, abandoned such programs.

Any EU plan that relies on recycling must include provisions to increase the capacity for safe recycling- ideally where the waste is generated– and not just dump the problem on poorer countries.

And as The Guardian account cited above makes clear, there’s also a Brexit angle to consider, now that the European Parliament has approved this latest single-use plan:

Labour MEPs said the EU plan must be respected by the UK after Brexit. Seb Dance, the party’s environment spokesman in the European parliament, said: “These new measures will slash the use of single-use plastics in the EU. With more than 700,000 plastic bottles littered in the UK every day, it would be negligent if the UK does not maintain these new targets if we leave the EU.

“Unless the UK mirrors EU action on plastics after Brexit, the Tories risk turning the UK into a dumping ground for cheap, non-recyclable plastics.”

The UK government has published more than 20 consultations on the plastic problem in 2018 but has yet to move forward with primary legislation.

Fifth Flaw: No Plan to Clean Up Existing Rubbish

Even assuming the latest plan arrested  further fouling of the environment, what about all the junk that’s currently floating around out there? European waste not only besmirches its beaches, but has found its way elsewhere as well. Microplastics contaminate table salt, according to National Geographic in Microplastics found in 90 percent of table salt, and are found in insect larvae. To be sure, reducing or recycling plastic waste is important –  crucial, actually. We also need  government-backed schemes to tackle retrieving plastic that’s already in the environment, instead of relying on private solutions to clean up our oceans (for one such effort, see Plastic Watch: First Ocean Cleanup Array to Launch Tomorrow).

What Is to Be Done?

I’m sure I’m not alone, dear readers, when I confess I find the plastic problem to be deeply depressing.

Now, I don’t wish to suggest that cleaning up this mess can effectively be done by individual action alone. Strong government action, and tighter regulation, will be necessary.

But since what’s been seen so far has been slow and scattered, not to mention deeply inadequate, there are some steps each of us can take.  (See, for example, these previous posts: Plastics: Don’t Microwave, or Place in the Dishwasher and Plastic Free July: What YOU Can Do to Reduce Plastics Waste, for some suggestions.)

I’ve recently stumbled across two other articles that offer other ideas– although  I concede, the behavior may seem to be a bit fiddly; nonetheless, I recommend the following piece from the Epicurious website, How I Stopped Using Plastic and Built a Travel Silverware Set. The headline is a bit misleading, as the personal silverware can be used as one goes about one’s daily routine, and is not confined to travel per se.

And from Lonely Planet, I spotted a more extended treatment of the same concern, How to reduce your use of plastic on a trip. Neither of these pieces offer complete solutions, by any means, but worth reading for useful suggestions on reducing one’s personal use of plastic.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    There is a big fly in the ointment in the EU where it comes to plastic waste – the dependency of many regions on incineration. Plastic waste is an important component in maintaining the calorific value of mixed waste. A strong policy of reducing plastic waste could leave many municipalities with a problem of lots of incinerators with waste which doesn’t burn very well.

    This is one of many reasons why waste issues need to be dealt with in a holistic manner, addressing one problem can have unintended impacts elsewhere in the waste stream.

    As usual, the privatization and deregulation agenda has severely undercut the ability of government at all levels to take the sort of integrated approach needed.

    1. up

      Indeed. In our area, “trash” goes to an incinerator and few plastics were ever actually recycled.

      With the price collapse in plastic and paper recycling, the trash hauler is now dumping our bins into the garbage side of their trucks.

    2. Mark Pontin

      Plastic waste is an important component in maintaining the calorific value of mixed waste

      Thanks for that info, PK. I didn’t know that.

      Something else that may not be well known is that we can create designer pathogens that eat plastic. Those who know have been talking about them as bioweapons for years – as far back as the early 1970s. So almost certainly the big state actors have programs that have investigated the possibilities.

      Problems are what comes out the other end — I don’t know — and containing them; if they got loose it’s a disaster scenario. But with those provisos, bioremediation via engineered bugs is definitely possible.

        1. Ignacio

          Enzymes, typically made by bacteria or funguses, migth help degrading plastics but yet degradation would be slow and costly.

          Think of plastics as chemically not that different from cellulose. To degrade cellulose tons of enzymes are needed mainly because its cristalline properties and low enzyme accesibility in cellulose fibers. Polyethylene plastic is made of large polymers that pack together very tightly and are very dificcult to degrade. Enzymes breaking monomer linkages have a difficult task because most of them are not physically accesible. You migth need a “pretreatment” to increase enzyme accesibility. For these reasons once you find enzymes attacking the plastics you migth need to use a lot of those combined with costly pretreatments. And example of pretreatment could be UV exposure. UV rays are known to break linkages on the plastic fiber.
          I think enzyme treatment migth have a future but rigth now I see it cumbersome.

          1. JW

            What a wonderful informed reply!

            But isn’t most of the plastic in the ocean already broken down in the way you describe?

      1. marku52

        A long time ago there was a book “Mutant 59” about a microbe originally designed to eat oil spills that mutated in the wild and started eating plastics. Aircraft began falling out of the sky and trains running out of control as electrical insulation was eaten up.

        I forget how civilization survived this…

        Has there ever been a case where we introduced a novel life form to a new environment and it didn’t turn out badly? (Rabbits to Ox, Kudzu to the South, etc.)

        1. wilroncanada

          marku52 et al
          There was an article in a yachting magazine in the 1970s about the discovery of a polyester worm that would be a menace to all those newly minted fibreglas boats that were being sold. It was related to me in all seriousness, but turned out to be an April Fool joke, like the ‘Invasion of the island of San Serif’ or the blight hitting the spaghetti orchards in Italy.
          In April, this year, there was another article, apparently serious, about a polyester mite which could eat plastic, albeit slowly.
          Comedy returns as news. Life imitates art?

  2. The Rev Kev

    I think that at this point we are going to have to turn back the clock on plastics. In the same way that plastics came to be used in more and more products in our lives since WW2, we are going to have to start removing them from our lives until we only use as much plastic as we did in the middle of the 20th century. I, for one, will not be sorry to see the last of one-time disposable water bottles in our lives.
    There is something that I have wondered about in the past. As easily-recoverable oil starts to rundown worldwide, which will we have to choose between – oil for fuels for our cars or oils to be turned into plastics? That is going to be an interesting choice to have to make that. And make it we will have to sooner or later.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Why do people drink from those bottles?

      How did we get water, in place of those bottles, say, in the 1960s?

      1. JTMcPhee

        Public water fountains. Now almost completely disappeared. Here’s a little think piece on the subject: And of course we all ought to recall how public water fountains used to be used to remind us all of our relative places in society:

        Maybe there are “stillsuits” and “water tokens” and “death stills” a la “Dune” in our future? How many of us recoil at the notion of drinking “reclaimed water” that comes from sewage processing, which is of course just a mechanical short-circuiting of the hydrologic cycle that adds a molecule or more of H2O that has been through the bowels and bodies of countless other organisms before ending up in your own belly in the dose of “Vitamin Water” you paid $2.99 for?

        People used to use canteens, or water bags. REI has a great assortment, as do the Redneck Resources like Cabella’s, and many suppliers of stuff for survivalist types.

        Now the Supply Chains do have stainless steel and aluminum water bottles for the gentrified, which do require some maintenance to avoid “germs.”

        Like public water fountains have to have a better-than-Flint-quality water source, and a guard over the spout to keep people from wrapping their disease-spreading lips around it. And to reduce the incidence of people putting a finger on the spout and spraying their friends and playmates.

        One feature I really like about plastic water bottles, that seems to say a lot about us Americans especially, though the model is spreading: the nipple-like closures on them. So users can go back to the comforting kind of source that nurtured them when they were infants… Lots of interesting articles if one does a search on “the infantilization of Americans…”

        How do humans manage to put the plastics genie back, pardon the expression, in the bottle? And how to defeat the Nestle Monster and other corporate scum that are using every trick in the Bernays cookbook to lock up supplies and “enhance” demands? How can the mind sets of all those little functionaries who operate the corporate monster and imbibe its mind meld get “woke” to what they are doing when they cut deals to legalize the taking of public water sources like whole aquifers, and struggle to show how they have increased sales and distribution of the “product” with all it does to the planet? It’s threats to the rice bowls of those folks, heaven forbid.

        So many different ways the humanspace is loaded up with death functions… Telomeres and apoptosis are worth thinking about…

    2. polecat

      I could see a future where only the 10% on up have the ability to obtain both their fuel AND their plastic quoient … but verboten, along with the attendent hefty fines, amongst the lowly 90%ers.
      Better hang on to those old plastic pails and juice containers while you still can .. you’ll probably need to use them as you hoof-it a few miles down some beaten path, to hold that half-liter of gasoline, in the off-chance there’s a pipeline breach.
      Welcome to Elysium World — where, for most of you, the grubbing never ends !
      I kid .. but only half so.

    3. Stadist

      As far as I know, most of the monomer feedstock used for the manufacture of most common polymers is at least partially a byproduct of oil refining. So it’s not exactly a choice between fuel oils (gas) or plastics. Outright ban on plastics would worsen average oil refineries economics of operation.

  3. Eclair

    My spouse and I were in Norway and Sweden last month, visiting family and Swedish folk music and dance groups. Our lodgings ranged from pretty nice to hostels. Extensive breakfast buffets were always included. I was struck by the absence of culinary plastics.

    Not only were plates, cups, glasses and eating utensils not plastic, but the jams, milk and butter were served in bowls, not those teeny plastic containers one finds in US restaurants and motels. And almost all of the group dinners and fikas were served on reuseable plates, cups and utensils.

    So, we know it is doable.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      These jams, milk, butter, etc. – they sound like local sourcing.

      And a more fundamental improvement.

      What we need to change involves more than just replacing packaged butter (longer shelf life?) with fresh butter in bowls (does it go back to the fridge wrapped with a sheet of film or a ceramic lid?).

  4. Jos Oskam

    I must confess that I am somewhat surprised by the list of disposable items addressed by the EU, like cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, and stirrers. Maybe the contents of my garbage can are way off the mean, but I almost never see these things. And that goes for my friends and acquintances as well.

    What do I see then? Endless quantities of used blister packaging, seems you no longer can buy products without it. Plastic yoghurt and milk containers, plastic lemonade and water bottles, plastic magazine wrappers, plastic shrinkwrap from the bio-groceries (!), plastic bags for too much to list here.

    I’m only guessing, but wouldn’t the most straightforward action be to just put a serious tax on the production and use of all disposable packaging? When I was a kid, milk and yoghurt came in glass bottles that were reused, lemonade and other bottles had a deposit scheme, groceries were packaged in old newspapers and lots of foodstuffs came in paper bags or cartons. So this is in no way science-fiction.

    Of course I understand that all kinds of special interests would be hell-bound against this, but I have this feeling that such a tax on disposables might be more effective in saving the planet and the oceans than making a show of banning straws and stirrers.

    1. JTMcPhee

      A nice regressive tax, with lots of ways to cheat if one has privilege. Just ban the dam things already. There seems to be a bit of a ground swell behind the notion.

      1. Jos Oskam

        I tend to agree, but I am not certain whether this is possible. There might be products that I haven’t thought of that really need plastic packaging. Not sure if a complete ban can be realized.

        And, unfortunately, whether we are talking a tax or a ban, loopholes will always be discovered and exploited. Replacing a blister with a plastic box that can serve as a lunch box for example… no longer single-use disposable, unless the consumer decides so.

    2. Jean

      What I can’t figure out is why are foods with limited shelf lives like dairy, packaged in plastic that lasts thousands of years?

      How about biodegradable plastics that begin to break down immediately after manufacture designed to contain food that is garbage after a couple of weeks? We buy organic milk in glass bottles. The caps are not recyclable and have a half life of 500 years. Same with cottage cheese, butter wrappers etc.

  5. upstater

    re. Fourth Flaw: Recycling Capacity, the FT had a lengthy article “Why the world’s recycling system stopped working” last weekend (paywall). There were many interesting facts and excellent graphics about the collapse of export markets for recycled waste and how flows have changed.

    re. Third Flaw: Fracking Begets Plastic, and Thereby Exacerbates Global Warming, I wrote a letter to the editor which was published in this weekend’s FT as the lead letter (hat tip to Jerri-Lynn for her efforts to educate us on the subject in her plastics series):

    In their article “ Recycling is broken. Can we fix it? ” (October 27), Leslie Hook and John Reed did not address the supply part of the equation. There has been a shift towards massive quantities of hard-to-recycle plastic packaging and containers for consumers that are unavoidable. Indeed, plastics have largely replaced recyclable and renewable paper-based alternatives, particularly withdraw, processed or ready to eat foods.
    This shift occurred because of costs; plastic has become cheap. In the US, the fracking boom has produced an enormous glut of natural gas liquids, which provide the feedstocks for making plastics. Shell, for instance, is building a $6bn plant that will produce 1.6m metric tons of the plastic polyethylene every year, provided with $1.65bn in tax credits from the state of Pennsylvania. There are many other such plants newly operating or under construction. The resulting plastics will be use somewhere and for something, most likely finding their way into consumer packaging and products that eventually are disposed of in some way.
    The externalities of plastics and fracking have been socialised. Public policy and laws must be changed to drastically limit hard-to-recycle plastics and mandate that the producers of this garbage (like Shell) must accept this waste for re-use in some productive manner.

    No doubt the minions in the City of London will have read the letter and things will change when markets on Monday (snark).

    Capitalism is such that it is impossible for the capitalists to “leave it in the ground”. Capitalism dictates that fossil fuels MUST be drilled and burned as quickly as possible. The fracking boom provides us with the evidence.

  6. JTMcPhee

    Got to love the kindness shown to “supply chain-ers” in the above, in the aside about how plastics are lighter than substitutes, and so shipping costs would increase with substitution (assuming, apparently, no change in ‘demand” for all the marvelous products in commerce. Like Great bottom-line stuff.

    Gaia seems to be telling us spoiled brats that we have to just stop making all this stuff, at peril of our (and so many other species’) extinction. Too bad our collective sense of entitlement and love of “convenience” and “consumption” and “self-indulgence” seems to be hard-wired in, and reinforced by every message from every screen and other outlet from which we get the Bernays-sauced “information” that “informs” our world views and personal choices.

    And history and anthropology and salesandmarketing don’t offer a lot of comfort that any significant group of us naked and savage apes have ever managed any lasting “sustainable and resilient” political economy.

    There are a lot of flies buzzing around our rotting, fetid, ever-growing, global kitchen midden… And I doubt that there will be “archaeologists” around, down the timeline, to try to puzzle out what th hell we were all about. As in, updated “Body Rituals Among the Nacerima,”

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Meant to tell you that I really enjoyed your phrase “nothing to lose but your supply chains” the other day in response to a comment of mine. I may have to steal that one.

      1. JTMcPhee

        I just put it out there. Free content, like free legal and medical advice, is usually worth every penny you pay for it. Help yourself. I keep wishing for some magical catalyst that would result in all us humans pulling on the same end of the rope in some direction other than toward the cliff edge. Maybe some kid messing with a CRSP-R kit s/he got for Xmas will release a bit of random genetic material that will do the trick?

        1. lyman alpha blob

          A magic bullet would be nice but bullets usually aren’t all that beneficial to their recipient. That scenario makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s near future from Oryx and Crake where the genetic tinkering simply got rid of most of humanity.

  7. lyman alpha blob

    Really can’t stand the “transportation cost” argument for continuing to use plastic bottles. Yes it would probably add some weight to a shipment, but I don’t see how it would cause bottles to be shipped any further or make more shipments necessary to deliver the same amount of product

    It wasn’t all that long ago that there were no plastic containers in grocery stores, or at least very few. Soda wasn’t sold in two liter bottles at all – most readers here remember the 70s when I think the biggest bottle of soda you could get was a glass one liter bottle. It probably wasn’t a bad thing from a public health standpoint either that soda wasn’t sold by the plastic tub as it is today. Laundry detergent came in boxes, condiments came in glass. This idea that we can’t go back to those days is simply ridiculous.

    I don’t believe that this particular problem can be solved by itself however. If you ban many uses for and types of plastics outright, which is really what needs to be done, people will lose their jobs. Done on a widespread scale, that will create political upheaval – much like the kind we already have as a result of a few decades of offshoring. I don’t think that’s a problem we want to exacerbate.

    We need a comprehensive restructuring of our economic system, with the intent of reversing pollution and climate change, and it needs to be done worldwide. Reforms could be implemented along with a job guarantee/basic income so those who stand to lose from reforms aren’t just left to suffer. If only there were examples of how that was done in the past…..

    We used to do great things that benefited everyone. I refuse to believe that can’t be the case again. But as a society we will need to give up on the notion that life can only be better if Jeff Bezos can ship us some plastic crap made in China surrounded by needless packaging in less than a day at the press of a button. Value cheapness and convenience over stability and equality and the roof will come crashing down, not just on the heads of the Amazon workers, but on all of us.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I meant to add one example of doing it right. We have a small dairy in out area that supplies many of the grocery stores. The milk only about 30 cows and they sell their milk in pint, quart or half gallon glass bottles. You pay a $1-$2 deposit on the bottle at the point of purchase which you get back when you return it. I’m assuming the bottles get washed and reused by the same dairy since they do their own bottling at the farm, although I’m not 100% certain of that.

      It wasn’t all that long ago that you used to see flatbed trucks shipping empty bottles back to be reused, but I haven’t seen one of those in a long time, not in the US at least.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        When possible, I opt to buy dairy products in returnable glass bottles.

        Just as I find beer seems to taste better from a bottle compared to a can, so I appreciate milk or cream more when packaged in glass instead of plastic or a cardboard carton.

    2. HotFlash

      Yes, glass is heavier than plastic, which is also resistant to breaking and freezing (a consideration when shipping liquids in colder climes). However, *no* container at all is even lighter and greater density is more efficient for bulk transit. Not to mention that more efficient still is not shipping thing so family-blogging far. I just don’t get how people complain about the price of gas and yet pay *more* per litre for bottled water at the same gas station without a peep.

      Much of the plastic packaging is for tamper and theft resistance as well. But see, in the olden days you would buy in bulk, the storekeeper might wrap it in a paper parcel if it was meat or medicine, and you’d could take it home or they’d deliver it. Even into the ’60;s you’d see “Cash and Carry”, which was the ‘modern’ way to shop, as opposed to “Run a Tab, We’ll Deliver” that was previously the norm. But back to packaging — you’d go the the stationer and the clerk would count out your two pencils and 12 envelopes from *behind the counter* and away you’d go with your purchase. Tiny or powdered things like medications and herbs, would be folded into paper packets and (maybe) sealed, again, the stock was usually *behind a counter*, so the clerks also served as guards against theft or tampering.

      Now we mostly help ourselves from largely unattended display. So, plastic saves on retail staff. Hey, our jobs have been taken by plastic!

      1. wilroncanada

        Having spent 30 years in the stationery business, 1960s thru 1990s, I watched the evolution (devolution) to packaging, first pressboard, now plastic. And you’re right, it was all to save on the salaries of staff who, first of all, might know something about what they were selling, and secondly couldn’t keep an eye out for pilfering if everything was in bulk out there on the shelves. Of course, it was exacerbated greatly by the takeover of office supplies by the big-box ‘category killer’ stores, along with the crapification of the products by replacing Canadian (American) and European manufacture with cheap imports.
        I still have a stapler and paper punch that are 50 years old, a clipboard and an archboard made of real wood, and a couple of heritage pens which still work.

    3. Chris

      I also remember strawberries in punnets made of woven slivered wood, wrapped in (real, not plastic) cellophane.

  8. Steve H.

    > What Is to Be Done?

    Cellulose is a first-iteration answer. Lacks the chlorine linkages and degrades.

    Follow the epidemiology. ‘Go long pestilence.’ Particularly in mass social gatherings, disposable utensils solve both a disease vector and security issue. They lower a barrier to entry of the cost of easy-to-steal items and needing equipment to sterilize them. The malo effects will be inversely proportional to income.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Take a toothbrush on the store shelf for example.

      Why is it packaged so?

      To keep it clean before it’s sold?

      To prevent tampering?

      We can do something about it once we know how it got there in the first place.

  9. Ignacio

    I agree with most quibbles about the EU directive but I would like to inject some optimism on this.

    First, although it is true that the directive comes up with little achievement on the “war on plastic” –although I am fed up with our cansine being in war with anything– and has taken too long to be approved and will take long to be applied, it has to be said that once approved, new improved directives replacing this one migth come faster. This has occured with other directives dealing with, for instance, those related with energy and the building codes. So, this is just a starting point. Keeping the focus on plastic residues, analysing the oceans, and being critical with the use of plastics should help to make it better in the near future.

    Yes, the issue is depressing but this means that the figth must be stronger. From the point of view of the consumer we need ways to avoid using plastics but more importantly ways to pressure the corporate world to use less plastics and there are certainly thousands of instances where plastics can be avoided. We should use the social networks to attack the offenders.

    I don’t forget an EU directive on olive oil packaging theoretically designed to prevent fraud but resulting in extensive use of plastics. All those monodoses of ketchup, olive oil, mayonese, sauces… involve enormous amounts of plastics with ultra-high plastic weigth/product weigth ratios and very low reciclability in practice.

    Talking about recycling I have to say that at least in Spain several plastic-recycling facilities have been put in place in the last couple of years so that less plastics go to incineration. Yet, I agree that recycling is not a solution at all on plastic waste. But the fact that money is employed on recycling, and it is costly, this will result, when LCA analysis is done, in higher plastic price. Another interesting point on this is that many neighbours of mine do not separate organic and plastics because, they argue, “it is false that plastics are recycled”. Not only waste treatment is more expensive because these %&%%$ers do not separate but their argument has become blatantly false.

    This summer I scubadived in a maritime natural park in the mediterranean sea. (Cabo de San Antonio, between Denia and Javea, Spain). This protected area is a fish nursery. When sea currents come from the south the area is filled with plastics. In 1 hour diving I could recover 20 pieces of plastics and I can show pictures of it. Yes it is depressing

    1. HotFlash

      Ignacio, thank you for this. It is possible to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as your non-recycling neighbours do, and we can also let the good be the enemy of the perfect. I think we embrace any change for the better and, as you say, make the fight stronger.

      I, too, am heartily sick of ‘wars’ on everything — although I note that ‘fighting for’ is often let go after the two minutes of hate.

      And please sir, what is ‘cansine’?

  10. KPC

    Jerry-Lynn, thank you so very much for this. You are doing a fabulous job in this very area.

    I have not yet read the entirety of your post but will a bit later in my day.

    Recycling is really not the solution. The solution is each and every one of us without exception must simply, quietly and easily stop using this junk. If we do not use it, there is nothing to recycle and nothing adversely impacting the environment.

    Neither our clients nor I need some government or similar to forbid this. We will and are trying to implement this NOW. Sort of like being adults.

    One of the problems here is the alternatives to plastic are no longer available in the market place (paper wrap for the fish and meat, for example).

    Some other day, we can discuss obnoxious “health and cleanliness” regulations which take a nano second to see who is influencing this area. Often, these regulations requiring the use of plastic actually enhance the filth in or on the product itself!?!??!

    Furthermore there is another problem which is cost. One of the typicas (fast food restaurant but local cuisine) “up the street” from this office is trying very hard to do this. One of the problems is the cost of the correct packaging has been pushed to five times that of the cost of the flipping plastic. Contextually, “somebody” is making a killing on both sides of the gig. This needs to be addressed.

    I would like to suggest this book and web site. The book recently arrived and I have scanned it. It is a fabulous resource for positive, dare I suggest even fun, solutions.

    Another problem is I am a bit older these days and our younger (ouch) clients, colleagues and friends simply do not know what the alternative tools and modes are/were available. Then, back to the paragraph above. To quote one of my sainted former presidents doña Laura: “¡Educacion, educacion, educacion!”

    We have to get these proper tools back in the market place at a fair and proper price. “Fair and proper” means the producers and suppliers must make a reasonable profit. It is a two way street.

    In any event, here is the book title: “Life Without Plastic”. Google still works on this one for their web site. Please take a moment and take a look.

    Again, thank you from my very heart and soul.

  11. Henry

    The rules for this part of the game of life are pretty straight forward. It seems though that many don’t even know the rules. I think mainly because our religious and political leaders believe we are not part of nature, which is the real problem, but that is changing as people start paying attention to what science is telling us and the myths change, for example, a human is functionally not an individual, but an ecosystem composed of a wide variety of organisms critical to our proper function. One such example: or duck duck go: Human microbiome project
    For those that are interested here are the rules as applied to our society:

    (necessary to achieve a sustainable society)

    1. Substances from the Earth’s crust can not systematically increase in the biosphere.
    This means that fossil fuels, metals, and other minerals can not be extracted at a faster rate than their re-deposit back into the Earth’s crust.
    2. Substances produced by society can not systematically increase in the biosphere.
    This means that substances must not be produced at a faster rate than they can be broken down in nature. This requires a greatly decreased production of naturally occurring substances that are systematically accumulating beyond natural levels, and a phase-out of persistent human-made substances not found in nature.
    3. The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically deteriorated.
    This means that we cannot harvest or manipulate ecosystems in such a way as to diminish their productive capacity, or threaten the natural diversity of life forms (biodiversity). This requires that we critically examine how we harvest renewable resources, and adjust our consumption and land-use practices to fall well within the regenerative capacities of ecosystems.
    4. In order to meet the previous three system conditions, there must be a fair and efficient use of resources to meet human needs.
    This means that basic human needs must be met with the most resource-efficient methods possible, including a just resource distribution.

    Duck duck go, The natural step, to learn how they came up with these or watch:


    How they came up with the rules

    A strategy

    Historically the consequence for not following the rules is that you are eliminated from the game as a species; Are we smart enough to figure out a way around the rules? Maybe, but the risk is pretty high so we might at least want to have a strategy.

  12. oaf

    Thank you for your dedication to this extremely critical issue…Collapse of the world’s food chains is a real possibility, if not a probability. The oceans and seas are the largest food producing part of our planet’s environment. Please; keep the topic in front of us. (along with the Other Ones).

    1. HotFlash

      Second that, Mr/Ms Oaf. Jerri-Lynn, thank you for (1.) your persistance in following this topic and (2.) your deep analysis. I just made a couple of changes in my life WRT plastics and packaging, and will take up this issue in two groups I am involved in, one buyer/end user and one retailer, both coops, to lessen plastics in packaging and other ‘discardables’ we buy.

      If not us, then who? If not now, then when?


  13. Mattski

    Appreciate the reference to the recycling fairy; as long as our focus is on the consumers, not the producers, we are doomed. But that would require quite a different, more radical political stance. Judging by the miracle cures that most excite the public imagination on Facebook, I’d say that whatever holds out the greatest chance of preserving everyone’s consumer lifeways are most popular. The change required of us goes beyond adjustments to JIT production or supply chains. Jameson has a piece in the new LRB about how we have stopped imagining new worlds–we only even consider little tweaks. Nature is doing more than tweaking us.

    Meanwhile, the lovely sensations of virtue–and superiorty–we liberals attain wearing a different grade of down, driving this car or that car, look more threadbare and supercilious with each new climate report.

  14. Blake Kelly

    I’ve always wondered if we couldn’t just make a plastic that burns clean, and then incinerate it when we are done with it. I mean polyethylene should burn just fine to my understanding, and if you use the heat I don’t see the waste or the problem. Some co2 goes in the air, to be sure, but if you grow plants to make the plastic it’s a closed loop. Also, isn’t throwing plastic in landfills the cheapest midterm carbon sequestration out there? We may run out of holes in the ground someday, but it looks like we may roast first…

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