Companies and individuals have a duty to recycle everything possible and to create and use more sustainable packaging

I just had a battle with my new kitchen handwash plastic bottle. I couldn’t get the pump to work. I pressed it, twisted it, fiddled with it, broke it, and then suddenly, for no particular reason, the contents squirted everywhere.

Then I had another fight with the cellophane packaging on the cardboard box around my teabags. I couldn’t get it off, couldn’t get my nails or the scissors under it, so I stabbed at the whole box with a pointy knife and ripped it open.

That’s all my own fault, because I should have bought a bar of soap, wrapped in paper, and loose-leaf tea, in one cardboard layer of packaging, not a few leaves wrapped in paper, wrapped in cardboard, wrapped in polythene.

I didn’t because I’m lazy, like a lot of modern consumers. But these relatively modern wrappings perhaps annoy and worry me more because I’m old enough to remember a time when we managed without them.

Plastic never goes away

I miss the old milk bottles (glass, made of sand and easily recyclable), the brown paper bags for loose fruit and vegetables. We used to drain our fried fish and chips on them and we used tea leaves and teapots instead of teabags. This isn’t just pointless nostalgia. It shows that you can live without excessive wrappings, like sellers on e-commerce sites with Russian-doll style packaging, and without so much plastic.

Plastic Packaging

More than 35,00 tonnes of plastic bottles are recycled at the Closed Loop Recycling plant in London every year. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty

Now it’s plastic, plastic, plastic: everywhere. Is there anything sillier than four apples or pears on a moulded polystyrene bed, covered in a hard plastic shell, wrapped in polythene? We can at least still buy fruit and veg loose, but hardly anyone makes their own chips. They’re sold, oven ready, in plastic bags.

No wonder not many of us dare to think about packaging and recycling because, when you do, our prospects look terrifying. Travelling from Cairo to Cape Town, Melinda Watson, who set up Raw Foundation, stopped every 100km and recorded the alarming amount of plastic in one square metre on each side of the road, mostly plastic drinks bottles, plastic bags, polystyrene food containers.

“Plastic can never be recycled completely. After two or three recycles it becomes inferior in quality. A staggering 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all: 40% is landfilled, and 32% leaks out the collection system,” says Watson.

In our oceans, plastic breaks down into molecules, which behave like sponges and sop up other toxins – colourants, additives, plasticisers – which get into our food chain and poison us. It’s simple, if you put toxins in they have to come out somewhere. All the plastic ever made is still here, in one form or another.

Bad design, poor recycling

The worse culprits are single-use plastic and plastic packaging: coffee cups (10,000 chucked every two minutes, just in the UK), straws (Americans use 500m every day), yoghurt cartons, cocktail stirrers, plastic razors, microbeads, and Tetra Pak cartons (because they’re made of several ingredients that are difficult to separate: card, aluminium, plastic coating) and coffee pods.

You name it, we probably can’t recycle it. John Sylvan, inventor of the K-Cup single-serving coffee pod, America’s biggest selling capsule, now “feel[s] bad sometimes that [he] ever did it”. But it’s too late now. It’s out there, and we have to find a way of dealing with it – of disposing of the trillion pods, pots, containers, wrappers, pizza boxes, toothpaste tubes, and anything else with food stuck to it, before they finish us off, along with all marine life.

When it comes to coffee pods, Nespresso says its are 99% aluminium and completely recyclable, and that used capsules can be dropped off at one of its 6,000 UK boutiques drop off points. But how many do that? Nestlé, which owns the Nespresso brand, has refused to say what proportion of its coffee capsules are recycled.

Great ideas

However, there are more positive examples out there. The dairy company Müller is reversing its plan to only sell milk in plastic bottles and encouraging a return to glass bottles and home deliveries. I wish them luck. Milk in the UK used to be 94% bottled, now it’s down to 4%.

Glass milk

Less than 5% of our milk in the UK is now consumed in glass bottles. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

On a national scale, France has passed a new law which will come into effect in 2020 to ensure all plastic cups, cutlery and plates can be composted and are made of biologically-sourced materials. Germany has the Original Unverpackt zero-waste supermarket and Hamburg has gone as far as banning coffee pods (often a mix of aluminium and plastic) from state-run buildings.

There are also new companies emerging with more focus on sustainable packaging. An American brewery has introduced edible six-pack rings, while Gumdrop recycles and processes chewing gum, and turns it into wellington boots, mobile phone covers, stationary and packaging. Others are making packing materials from compostable corn starch or sorghum, while New York-based Ecovative design has developed fungus-based packing materials.

These initiatives, large and small, give us some hope that we can tackle packaging waste. But, as we should remind ourselves, the good old days of zero packaging haven’t really gone away. We can choose glass bottles of milk, Marmite and ketchup, instead of those pointless plastic squeezy versions, we can refuse plastic bags, and try much harder to live less wastefully, as we used to.

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