Plastic is polluting our planet and there are widespread calls to get rid of it, but it might not be as simple as wishing the ubiquitous material away! Did you know that if we were to get rid of plastic, the loss of primary form of food packaging would make thousands of people sick, millions to starve or dead within a matter of a year? It is important that we focus on the rudimentary systems that carry it out — a global food production system that has heavily skewed priorities rooted from customer demands.
Of course, there is no denying that plastic is a major problem for the planet. Today we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, that’s coequal to the weight of the entire human population. The pace of consumption at which we are going, a huge amount, if not all, will end up in landfills, in marine life’s stomachs, or in our bodies. Microplastic end up getting consumed by animals, and that way they enter the human food chain. In fact, larger plastic gets stuck in animals’ stomachs that blocks their digestive system, ultimately killing them.
To envision a world without plastic, we need to first change the very basic framework of how our societies function. One of the major reasons plastic exist today is because humans want affordable and dexterously sourced food on their table. In order to meet this want, we developed a amalgamate food supply chains that intersect our countries and the oceans. We created a complex and profit-making international food supply chain to deliver our favourite pecks to local supermarkets; it first needed to be wrapped in such a way that it can arrive pathogen free and with an increased shelf life. Enter Plastic!
Think of the number of people who come in contact with your food even if its only moving within your region or country: producers, processors, and manufacturers to distributors, traders and retailers. Now imagine there was no hurdle between your food and them. Pathogens in one country are now better able to find their way to another all due to globalisation of food chain. Nutrition professor Thomas Sanders in a paper in the British Medical Journal writes, “Mass packaging of food is an important hurdle between microbiological contamination.” In the modern food system, the main functions of packaging have expanded to include containment, convenience, communication and protection. After your food arrives in the supermarket, hopefully pathogen-free, plastic also helps keep your food separate from other food products and prevents ethylene (a hormone found in plants) to ripen food. As a result, now you can safely eat food from all over the world for a long spell of time. Heretofore, it was not possible to live in India and eat kiwis from NZ or strawberries from Italy. It is plastic that made it possible!
Beyond serving our own taste buds, plastic also plays a huge role in fighting against malnutrition in the developing world. Are you acquainted with the fact that according to WHO approximately 16 million (1.0%) DALYs (disability-adjusted life year) and 1.7 million (2.8%) of deaths are ascribable to low fruit and vegetable consumption. If plastic was not as mainstream for food preservation, more communities would suffer from malnutrition.
Even though there are plenty of precarious reasons why we should get rid of plastic, it is essential to change the way food production and transportation works. Besides this, we ought to check our desires to have cheap, convenient foods whenever we want them.
Another option is to use a separate packaging. Even though it might not be as effective as plastic pertaining to reasons explained above, but it would mean we are reducing the amount of use-and-throw packaging that is finding its way into oceans and landfills. For starters, there are plenty of cool innovations that are already in talks and beginning to trend, like bio-nanocomposites and plant-based packaging. But replacing them with plastic packaging won’t be an easy road, these innovations need investment and battle-testing before they can take on the ease and price of using plastic. Otherwise, more and more people will not be able to afford the fruits and vegetables that keep them healthy.
An alternative option to battle this problem is if we up our recycling game by re-using the plastic we dispose. While we need to slow the flow of plastic from its source, we also need to improve the way we manage our plastic waste. Here’s a dissection of where we are at currently with disposing plastic — 9% Recycled, 12% Incinerated, 79% end up in landfills, dumps, or oceans. Some of the most common single use plastic waste found in the environment which are a major concern today include cigarette butts, drink bottles, bottle caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, drink lids, straws, and stirrers. Many of us use these products every day, without even thinking about where they might end up. The world is already waking up to the problem and governments around the world have started fighting the problem — from running public awareness campaigns, to offering incentives for recycling, to introducing levies or even banning certain products outright.
The crux of the story is that plastic is only a symptom of a disease known as our centralised food system. To be done with plastic would literally mean to change the world and that is what we should be fighting for. A world in which we phase out plastic, yes. But before that, encourage a change to how we source our food (buying local markets and gardens), encourage retailers to change their practice of food sourcing and support permaculture organisations and training.