The myths surrounding single-use plastic

plastic cutlery
Is recyclable plastic cutlery really so bad after all?

From Sunday, takeaways and restaurants in England are banned from handing out single-use plastic. New regulations mean that they can be fined £200 if they are caught giving customers plastic cutlery, polystyrene cups or containers.

And, although many are hailing it as another vital step towards the total elimination of plastic waste in Britain, there have been warnings that many businesses are not prepared and that the new rules will be too expensive to enforce.

But there is an even more fundamental question that needs to be asked: will the change actually benefit the environment?

Because the truth is, although it has been demonised by the green lobby and companies are under huge pressure to reduce or replace it, plastic is not necessarily the toxic material it is made out to be.

A decision by Lego this week encapsulates the problem. When the Danish toy company first announced its intention to make its bricks from recycled bottles, it was hailed as a huge step in sustainability. But the manufacturer has now said that it is abandoning the plans, saying that switching from oil-based plastic to recycled materials would have led to higher carbon emissions over the product’s lifetime.

Lego’s chief executive said that the company had tested “hundreds and hundreds” of methods, but could not find the “magic material” to solve sustainability issues.

Using recycled bottles required greater energy for processing and drying, and extra ingredients for durability.

The backtrack by the world’s biggest toymaker highlights the extent to which plastic has been demonised, with companies under huge pressure to reduce or replace, even when it has little economic – or environmental – benefit.

James Piper, a recycling expert and author of The Rubbish Book, had predicted that Lego’s initial idea was an environmentally friendly pipe dream that would do more harm than good.

“There is an element of companies knowing plastic is a good product, but that’s a very tricky message to get across to the consumer,” he says.

PPE Medical equipment
Plastic is well-suited to medical equipment, because it is good for sterilisation - FatCamera/Getty

Piper had foreseen another problem: Lego would have disrupted the existing market for recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a polymer found in items such as bottles, packaging and some textiles; forcing up the price and making recycled PET plastic unaffordable for manufacturers of drinks bottles.

“A ton of Lego is worth thousands of pounds, much more than plastic bottles,” explains Piper. “You would suddenly have a massive distortion in the market, where all the drinks companies, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, are looking for recycled PET and can’t get hold of it because Lego is buying it.”

The “capture rate” of Lego – the proportion that is recycled – would also have been very low. As a high-value product, the bricks are designed to last for many years, taking pride of place on your shelf at home, or – for many despairing parents – strewn all over the carpet.

Only a small percentage would likely have been recycled compared to the percentage of a single-use item such as a drinks bottle, which is recycled over and over again.

And Lego is not the only company to discover that recycling can have unintended consequences.

Marks & Spencer’s move this month to replace its plastic “bags for life” with paper carrier bags may sound environmentally friendly, but Piper says, it could actually have the effect of causing more plastic to go to landfill.

“Already most supermarkets manufacture their plastic bags from recycled shrink-wrap used to deliver their products to stores,” he explains. “If everyone moves to paper, that shrink wrap doesn’t get recycled – there’s no market.” (Not to mention the fact that paper bags are less well equipped to carry heavy loads of shopping, especially if they become wet.)

Plastic is such a toxic topic that, even when there’s a good reason to use it, such as less wastage, lower cost or relative ease of recycling, it’s a hard sell.

Marks and Spencer bags
Marks & Spencer is replacing plastic bags for life with paper carrier bags, but not everyone thinks this is a good idea - PSL Images/Alamy Stock Photo

“Instead of demonising it, we should be questioning the purpose it’s being used for in the first place,” says Piper. “Do we need [the product]? And if yes, what material should it be made from?” 

Why a plastic milk bottle is greener than a carton

MILK
MILK

Plastic milk bottles are the poster child for recycling done well. “As far as I’m aware, every council in the UK collects them, so that’s a perfect story,” says Piper, of the HTP plastic bottles widely used in the UK.

However this good news story gets overlooked – there’s a perception that Tetra Pak cartons, which are plastic and paper welded together, are preferable. “They are very difficult to recycle and very few councils collect them,” says Piper.

“However it looks good because on the outside it looks like cardboard. So everyone thinks it ticks a sustainability box.”

Meanwhile, glass bottles need to be reused about 20 times to be sustainable. “Some companies are reporting getting 30 uses, so that’s pretty good,” says Piper. “In a refill context, a glass bottle works. But if you are using it once and crushing it, then it’s not.”

Plastic wrapping prevents food waste 

plastic wrap
plastic wrap

If you’ve ever left a cucumber to perish in the bottom of your chiller drawer, you’ll know the life-enhancing power of plastic to delay the sludging process.

In fact, plastic makes up about 5 per cent of a product’s sustainability credentials. “While we all focus on the packaging, that’s only a small part of the sustainability story,” says Piper.

Food waste is a huge sustainability issue and plastic on cucumbers makes a difference.

In 2017 a study of data from retailers in Australia showed a food waste rate of 9.4 per cent among cucumbers not wrapped in plastic, compared with 4.6 per cent for those wrapped.

The trouble with paper straws

Straws
Straws

Stories about how they accumulated with other plastic waste and formed huge floating masses on the ocean surface drove a decision to ban plastic straws in 2020.

Since then we’ve been left to suck it up through soggy paper alternatives. “There’s little doubt that they are difficult to use and tend to disintegrate,” says Piper. While he doesn’t think we should bring back plastic straws, he also stresses that banning them has led to paper straws seeming like an ethical decision, even when they’re not.

“There have been lots of studies done that show that if something is made of paper people believe it’s more environmentally friendly,” he says. This means consumers don’t question using paper straws, even though they are wasteful too.

On top of this, some studies have shown that paper straws contain polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as “forever chemicals”. This not only means that the straws likely aren’t biodegradable – they are also vectors for chemicals considered hazardous to human and environmental health.

Wooden cutlery may not be an ethical choice 

Wooden cutlery
Wooden cutlery

Though the woody taste of a disposable spoon or fork can strip the joy out of lunch, they seem like a more conscious choice.

However as Piper says: “There’s never a recycling bin for wood when you’re out on the go, so that’s got to go in the bin.” At which point, is recyclable plastic cutlery so bad after all?

Compostable options might seem like a sensible solution, but current recycling systems aren’t configured to deal with it, so more often than not it ends up in landfill anyway.

“We need restaurants and takeaway outlets to think through the end of life. When they use compostable cutlery there’s no way of processing it.”

Again, Piper questions whether we should even have the option of the two – far better that we all start to carry our own metal cutlery and make a better choice for the planet.

The green credentials of coffee pods 

coffee pods
coffee pods

Nothing seems more wasteful than aluminium coffee pods, but some research suggests they can be an environmental good, even when made from plastic.

While recyclable aluminium pods are more environmentally friendly than plastic, pods in general are better than filter or drip because they promote less coffee waste. Taking into account the whole life cycle of the product means greenhouse gas emissions, water and fertiliser are part of the sustainability story, not just the packaging.

For the record, freeze-dried coffee came out tops, environmentally, but is unlikely to keep coffee snobs content.

Why plastic can’t be beaten for medical equipment

It’s hard not to wince at the thought of how many tons of single-use PPE the pandemic created. Little bits of plastic are the mainstay of the modern medical world.

“With medical equipment the appeal is obviously that plastic is good for sterilisation,” says Piper.  It highlights bigger questions about how plastic should be used.

“If you’re going to have plastic anyway because it’s a byproduct of the oil industry, let’s have it in places where it doesn’t disappear and get used once and never enjoyed or used again,” says Piper.

Where that’s not possible, as with PPE, it’s imperative to create recycling markets. “That way shrink-wrap film becomes carrier bags. Or plastic bottles become plastic bottles. Let’s not disrupt those markets.”