The majority of our plastic waste comes from single-use plastic. The Citizen May Plasticvrij campaign is calling for something to be done about it. However, banning blind plastics is not a good idea, experts say.
In 2019, 368 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide, half of it in Asia and one third in China. Europe accounted for 58 million tons. Forty percent of the plastic used in Europe goes to packaging, ie single-use plastic. This “single-use plastic” makes up 60 percent of Europe’s plastic waste.
Experts say if we want to do something about plastic pollution, this is where the big payoffs can be made. “The mountain of plastic waste has undoubtedly grown because of Corona – mouth masks, gloves, disinfection bottles, takeaways,” says Kim Ragaert, professor of plastic recycling at Ghent University. There are few concrete numbers on this, but we can assume that the use of plastic will continue to increase in the coming years, just like metal or glass. This has to do with our focus on economic growth.
To make people aware of the “disposable packaging tsunami”, the Mei Plasticvrij campaign has been launched for the fourth year in a row. Invites consumers to look for alternatives to their plastic use. “There are a lot of those,” says the Citizens group, which includes TV faces like Dieter Coppins and Hilde de Berdemaker in its campaign.
“We’re calling on people to share their plastic-free story on #meiplasticvrij,” campaign manager Ineke Van Nieuwenhove says. With your drinking cup or lunch box, a bamboo toothbrush, household polish or facial cleanser, a bar of soap or a washable diaper. Others may think after ten times: This alternative is worth it. We also want to discuss sanitary pads and tampons. There is a lot of plastic in it. It led to tons of waste. Menstrual cups and underwear can replace this.
“In order to tackle single-use plastics, we must first and foremost fight single-use products,” says Raggart. You’d rather talk about a waste and situation problem than a financial one. Should supermarkets have 30g bags of nuts as a healthy snack? Whether packed in plastic or carton: No.
If in Belgium single-use plastic, with our infrastructure, ends up in the environment, there is a reason for it: laziness in putting it in the trash. It is more complex in less developed countries. It is our moral duty to build logistics plants for the collection and processing of plastics in Africa and Southeast Asia. Otherwise, it will eventually persist in the oceans.
“Deposits are particularly effective in reducing litter,” says Professor Kim Raggart. It cannot reduce the amount of single-use plastic. It does not have much added value compared to our PMD recycling system in terms of the quality of the collected plastic. Three years ago I did not see the added value of the deposit. Our blue PMD bags will be very empty without PET bottles, while our collection system is one of the best in Europe. There are now also detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, and chips in the blue bags so that – if you recover the cans and bottles by depositing – a large amount of plastic waste will be left for recycling in existing plants, which has been directed into a water bottle. Now I support it.
Kinder Surprise eggs are a good example of an “unsustainable” product.
Ragaert doesn’t think we should focus blindly on reducing plastic production. We particularly need to investigate how as much plastic as possible is made from recycled plastic, how we can use it as reliably as possible and how we can limit individual use. Why are dino and other cookies individually wrapped in a box? Just because parents want to take them to school. We have to stop such things.
She mentioned Kinder Surprise egg, a chocolate egg that contains a plastic egg with a toy, as an example of a product that is not very sustainable. You are getting rid of content in the short term. It is better not to buy tools with a short life. The product will stop quickly afterwards. As a consumer you have power, she also said in her TEDx talk provocatively titled “Rehabilitating Plastics,” where she shows with examples that the environmental impact of plastic isn’t always black and white.
She also denounced the recent use of paper plates in brown cardboard fleets with charcuterie or cheesecake. It is promoted as paper, but has a thin layer of polyethylene on it. This pollutes both paper and plastic fluxes. You can’t do anything with it. She is not happy with the mountain of waste caused by e-commerce and the hype around takeaway. The amount of cardboard devoted to this is enormous. Many pizza boxes have a thin layer of plastic. It is not clean.
Raggart is a fan of packing systems. “Last year, Procter & Gamble launched an in-store shampoo bottle refill option. This way it eliminates a lot of single-use plastic packaging.
Raggart and her team – “young idealists who want to improve the world” – specialize in manufacturing higher quality recycled plastics. She works with companies such as Indaver, Govaplast, Suez, Samsonite and Whirlpool. Through her lab, she recently supported the development of a Philips vacuum cleaner whose plastic parts are made up of 75 percent recycled products. “Great product,” she says.
She says purity is extremely important for plastic recycling. The less plastic that is made up of different types of plastic, the better it is to reuse it. This is why companies are returning to more mono materials rather than different types of plastic on top of each other.
Recycling plastic is not always easy. Ragaert: The communication between packaging is strictly regulated. PET bottles are completely recyclable and made into food-grade plastic, like new plastic bottles or saucers for cheese. On the other hand, milk bottles are not because they are made of the same polyethylene as shampoo bottles and classic sorting systems cannot identify the plastic that has been in contact with food or not. With the Holy Grail project, many multinational companies are looking at how to watermark food contact plastic so that we can sort it without any problems.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but I am optimistic. There is a lot of goodwill and critical mass to do something about the mountain of plastic waste, from governments as well as NGOs, consumers and producers. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation of Britain is one of the pioneers Circular Economy, which is also present at the World Economic Forum in Davos, has successfully involved the top 100 companies in its story.
Europe’s slowness frustrates it. By 2030, 100 percent of plastic packaging in Europe should be recycled, but there is still no binding definition of “recyclable”. So every cowboy can put it on his pack, but in the lab it is different from the large.
Cotton Shopping Bag
Raggart agrees that Mei Plasticvrij focuses on menstrual products. It is very difficult to recycle because it contains human excreta. Now almost all of them have been burned. Last year, Raggart reacted strongly to May Plastivrig. It has been hinted that the coronavirus will persist longer on plastic surfaces than on cardboard.
“Fear fear,” she says. It’s not true that plastic is always bad. There is a lot of misunderstanding, but plastic also has many advantages: it is light, effective, cheap, protects against disease and reduces food waste. Last year, British supermarkets replaced plastic shopping bags with paper and cardboard bags. But a lot of data shows that this is not the best solution. The paper bag must be reused at least four times to be environmentally friendly. Many find the foil-covered cucumbers ridiculous, but the 2-gram package keeps its flavor for eleven days and avoids food waste. Avoided CO2 emissions are five times higher than those from the plastics industry.
According to Rajart, using glass for beverage bottles — if the environmental footprint of production, carbon dioxide emissions, water and land taxes, and transportation are included — is worse for the environment in half the cases than cans or plastic. The same for the cotton shopping bag. Cotton production is intensive. You have to use it 170 times if you want your impact on the environment to be less than that of a plastic bag.