Let’s Not Treat Sustainability Merely as a Target

Published on by Green Initiatives

Plastic Free July is a campaign led by the Plastic Free Foundation - initially started in Australia but that has now spread across the globe. Each year, millions of people and organisations take the challenge to refuse single-use plastics.

Think about it. Why would you make something that you’re going to use for a few minutes out of a material that’s basically going to last forever, and you’re just going to throw it away. What’s up with that? -- Jeb Berrier, BagIt movie

Let’s take a look at some numbers:

  • Studies showed that between 2004 and 2014, household food waste in the EU doubled to an estimated 30 million tonnes per year.
  • Within the same period, plastic packaging waste increased by 50%, reaching over 15 million tonnes, where food packaging waste from big retailers served as the largest contributor.
  • 37% of all food sold in the EU is wrapped in plastic many of which due to food grading standards.
  • Fitting the food into smaller packaging also created more waste, as studies revealed that chopping green beans to fit plastic packaging resulted in 30-40% of the beans being wasted.

At the end, the cost of food waste in the EU was almost equivalent to the annual operational budget of the EU, estimated at €143 billion each year.

It is ironic that many global retail giants such as Walmart have been trying to reduce the number of plastic bags by charging customers for plastic shopping bags at the counter, while at the same time providing unlimited plastic bags for weighing and buying vegetables.

What you could do:

  • Try carrying a cloth bag and buy fruits and vegetables from the local wet market instead of going to the supermarkets. In China, it almost always works!

But are businesses really creating an impact?

In June 2019, Coca Cola officially announced that Sprite would be ditching its iconic green bottles and switching to clear plastic bottles for the first time in nearly 60 years. Sprite stated that all the clear bottles were much easier to recycle than the original green bottles, as the company aimed to remove 3,100 tonnes of new plastic from circulation. It was indeed a move to plastic reduction.

However, it still left some consumers wondering what happened to the days when Sprite provided glass bottles that could be washed and reused. Was it because the plastic ones had more cost advantage of manufacturing, or was there a lack of demand for the glass bottles that were not easily disposable?

What you could do:

  • Replace plastic bottles with a reusable bottle and carry and refill whenever you see a water dispenser.
  • Drink fresh fruit juice or drink directly from soda fountain dispensers

McDonalds’s uses millions of plastic straws every single day. In response to environmental concerns, started in September 2018, McDonald's replaced plastic straws with paper alternatives across its restaurants in the UK and Ireland. However, the customers responded with huge disappointments towards the new eco-friendly straws claiming that their drinks were ruined by the paper ones. McDonald's effort to reduce plastic waste backfired to an extent that more than 42,000 signed a petition for bring back the plastic straws in April 2019. Other consumers began using plastic coffee lids in order to avoid using straws, which could only make the sustainable intention worse.

What you could do:

  • Avoid plastic straws by using your lips or reusable stainless-steel straws and by telling the restaurants and cafes that you don’t need them.

Similar circumstances occurred when Starbucks launched a campaign in 2018 banning plastic straws in North American stores in the hopes of banning all straws by 2020 across its 28,000 stores worldwide. The transition was initially praised by the public, nevertheless, researches found that the straw-less lids that were promoted actually increased the plastic production, meaning between 0.32 and 0.88 grams were added to a consumer’s plastic consumption per drink, compared to the straw and lid combination.

What you could do:

  • Instead of having to buy coffee in a disposable cup every day, try carrying a reusable coffee mug. There's great designs out there these days.

So how can businesses and individuals be truly sustainable instead of simply creating illusionary impacts for the sake of appearance, or PR or hitting a “sustainability target”?

Understanding the problem is the key. Truly wanting to solve it is another.

When we are so used to the convenience of consuming and disposing plastic products, we don’t realise that we are not only doing harm to our environment, but are also damaging our own health.

Every year, an average of eight million tons of plastic waste, most of it single-use varieties, flows into the world’s oceans from coastal regions. It means that marine life—from the smallest plankton to the largest whales—are eating these plastics, including those tiny enough to be considered microplastics. At the end, the waste came back to us as studies discovered tiny plastic particles and fibers in human bodies after identifying microplastics in drinking water, seafood, and table salt.

Do you realise the urgency now?

Take the challenge and really refuse single-use plastics waste starting with July 2019!