One thing I learnt was that although plastics are harder to recycle than other materials, because they are so much lighter they are sometimes the greener option. For example:
- If you look at the total consumption of goods in the UK, plastic is used to package 53% of them. If you look at the total packaging weight of all those goods however, plastic only accounts for 20% of the packaging weight.
- Glass is the opposite - only 10% of consumed goods in the UK are packaged in glass, but glass makes up 20% of the total packaging weight.
- An Austrian study in 2004 found that eliminating plastics from the supply chain would increase the weight of packaging used by a factor of four - because all the alternatives are heavier.
So although it takes oil to make plastics (well, most of them), it may well take more oil to ship around the alternatives.
A couple of Supermarket examples bear this out. Supermarkets score points with consumers by elimating plastic packaging from the shelves, but this either leads to more packaging being used during shipping, or more wasted food:
- The Co-Op now sells cucumbers without wrapping them in plastic. The Cucumber Growers Association claims that more packaging is being used to transport them, while they lose a week of shelf life and get more frost damage in the consumers fridge.
- M&S found that apples sold on a plastic tray covered in plastic film needed 27% less packaging than apples sold loose, because the loose apples had to be moved via a succession of cardboard boxes.
- If the UK, food waste in the supply chain runs at about 3%. In countries with more basic infrastructure, such as India, it may be as high as 50%. Modern packaging such as plastic is one of the major reasons for this.
I found all this interesting because it seems to show that now politics and business are more focused on environmental responsibility, people are really looking at things in detail and finding out that they are not as simple as they may have seemed. I have long thought that consumers bear a lot of responsibility for the massive resource usage of humans, and that ethical consumerism could be a real force for change. This relies on clear information about the source of products and their resource usage. But is also relies on things being fairly easy for the average consumer to figure out. Is glass packaging better than plastic for example?
As Dick Searle, of the 'Packaging Federation' says:
There's a moral question here - Are consumers always right? Are they well infomed enough to guide these decisions? Is listening to them actually the right thing to do?
Source for the stats: FT Weekend Magazine, April 26/27 2008.