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Recycling isn’t a golden bullet - we need to cut down on packaging

Published: 4 February 2022

It's time to talk about packaging

In his latest blog our environmental champion Denis the Dustcart considers how the purchases we make can make a big difference to the packaging we discard

Things are getting more expensive.

Especially those things that are sold to us as ‘affordable options’ – you know, where you get half as much of something for more than half the price.

While we might be able to afford only a smaller quantity of an essential product at certain times, the reality is that by doing this repeatedly we end up spending so much more.

We also, inevitably, get through a lot more packaging.

When I was in school, for a summer or two there was a fad for frozen lurid squash drinks available from the tuck shop – those ones you could get in a little plastic pot with a plastic film lid you had to jab your straw through (you know the ones).

Frozen, because then they were like a big ice lolly encased in plastic, so they would melt around the edges as your hand warmed them up and you could suck a satisfying amount of cold juice from around the outside of the frozen core.

You can still get them today, I think. But I imagine they have fewer e-numbers in them.

Now, one of my friends had the cunning idea of making up his own squash at home in a big bottle and freezing it overnight. These days we might be more cautious about refreezing and repeatedly drinking from the same single-use plastic bottle, given the rise in awareness of microplastics and ever since reports about chemical leaching emerged in the early 2000s. But back then, he was considered a genius.

By first break time his giant ice lolly had released the perfect quantity of freezing-cold juice into the bottle and he could carry on enjoying it throughout lunchtime.

This seemed to us a far better proposition than dropping another 50p of pocket money on a single small pot of frozen blue drink (incidentally, non-frozen ones cost only 30p each), so we all copied him and the school lost out on probably hundreds of pounds of tuck shop profits.

To be clear: we based our decision to go ‘home-frozen’ purely on personal economics and our desire to spend our pocket money on sweets after school; it had nothing to do with consuming fewer e- numbers (though we benefited from not spending the lesson after lunch on the ceiling) and it certainly didn’t have anything to do with lessening the environmental impact of our plastic consumption.

Recycling – let alone plastic-waste awareness – was pretty-much non-existent back then.

Even so, recycling isn’t a golden bullet. It doesn’t reduce the amount of plastic we use, only how much new plastic we create – and there are limits as to what cheap plastic can be turned into anyway.

Here in Exeter we try our hardest to get the plastic we sort turned back into products that will actually impact the amount of virgin plastic needed to create those products – such as getting clear bottles turned into clear bottles. This also benefits Exeter’s local economy by maximising the income we bring in for public services in the city.

But as yet there is no solution available to us for getting coloured bottles turned back into coloured bottles.

So let’s take those small bottles of ready-mixed squash. A pack of six will cost more than a single litre bottle of squash and you’re getting, say, about 15-20% as much actual squash. The rest is water, which you can get from your tap. What you’re actually buying is a load of plastic – coloured plastic, which can’t be recycled into anything of significant value and definitely not back into coloured squash bottles.

If you buy a single bottle from the shop’s fridge, then it will cost you even more relative to mixing your own squash at home and its environmental impact will have shot up due to the bottle having been refrigerated for your drinking pleasure.

And there are other examples besides squash. Lots of them.

There is of course a time and a place for certain disposable products – particularly during a global pandemic – but I’m talking about what is unnecessary or, to put it another way, avoidable.

How about those multipacks of small cereal boxes. Who among us used to enjoy these as a treat in childhood, but was disappointed by how little cereal we got in each box and so ended up mixing two together to get a full bowl? Each box also contained (still contains) a plastic bag, so we’re not only talking about cardboard production.

The surface area of all these little boxes and bags together is far greater than for a single box of ‘naughty’ cereal (remember: these multipacks also contain the more boring, everyday cereals that inevitably get left till last, so really only the first half of the pack is a ‘treat’). This means it takes a lot more cardboard and plastic to package several individual portions (or half-portions) of cereal than it does a single box of cereal that will contain more portions anyway. And let’s not forget about the plastic wrap that keeps all the boxes together, which can’t be recycled as standard.

And let’s not forget that you’re also paying relatively more for your cereal.

Another example would be detergent. Buying two 750ml bottles will mean using more than twice as much packaging as buying a 1.5 litre bottle, and each half-size bottle will also certainly cost more than half as much money.

If you know how much of something you need, it makes sense to get it a lot cheaper while using less than half as much packaging overall.

But again, it comes down to what we can afford at a given time. So what can we do?

On a personal level, we can plan. Plan what we will need and get as much of what we will definitely use as we can afford.

We can stop buying so much packaging. We can reuse bottles where it is safe to do so – bottles that have been designed to be reused – and visit refill shops when we can. There are zero-waste stores in many communities these days, and several in Exeter.

It’s important to remember that there is a reason why half as much of something never costs us half as much money, and why so-called affordable options usually cost us more in the long run. I’m certainly not seeking to place the primary responsibility for increased spending on the shoulders of the consumer, but avoiding multiple purchases of smaller quantities can go some way helping us keep more of what we earn in our pockets.

It will also keep more natural ‘resources’ in the ground.

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