Are we ready for a plastic-free world?

Plastic is the symbol of our planet’s pollution. But would we be able to live without it? Perhaps we should start treating it differently.

Try and go out and enter in any supermarket. Look around and observe the shelves. What can you see? Pouches, trays, boxes and bottles.. what do they have in common? They are all made of plastic.

Plastic, with all its derivates (CPE, PVC, PLA only to mention a few), has become the symbol of our planet’s pollution and it literally wraps everything we eat. It has been part of our life for a century and it has practically replaced all other materials. The question is: can we live without it?

Let us focus for a moment on our daily life. How would it be going grocery shopping without plastic? And once we get back home, how would we store our food? It is difficult to imagine it, is it not?

According to the 2019 report of the Research Department Coop on consumption an life styles, we use a little more than two million tons a year of PVC for food use. These two tons are, according to Plastic-free, 40% of the total annual demand of plastic in Italy. We should not only think about the bottles for water and other drinks: these only constitute 30% of the total. We should think about Styrofoam trays, boxes and pouches.

Differently than what one could think, most of the demand of PVC for the large distribution is destined to the packaging of fruit, vegetables and fresh products like meat and fish, that are the most perishable goods.

It is intuitive that plastic allows us to store and transport food without risking ruining it. Without plastic wrapping, meat would decay in few days, while the most delicate fruit would not be transportable (strawberries for example).

Materials derived from plastic and used for food allow us to maintain high hygienic standards for our food, to which nobody would want to give up on. Moreover, they enable us to do our groceries in a short amount of time, which is a fundamental condition for modern society, and also not to waste food by making it more accessible for everybody.

Maybe the solution to maintain our food habits is not to eliminate plastic entirely, but rather to make a better use of it.

Let us make another test, look around: how many canteens do you see? On average, in a crowded day in a university library you can see at least 10. How many where there last year? Most certainly not as many. This is a symptom of a change in the way people think; it is not just a temporary fashion trend that is destined to die out, but the take up of a good habit that starts from small things. We should start considering plastic as an important element, a resource with several qualities and not just an object with little value that is to be used once and then disposed of.

Different solutions exist, and they are starting to be implemented. Something simple and by now quite common, is the increasing number of people that bring their own canvas bags for their groceries instead of buying them in the shop. A little less common in Italy, but for instance very common in Switzerland, is the net bags for fruits and vegetables: even though these are also made of plastic, they can be used hundreds of times before being disposed of.

One of the main problems with recycling is the fusion of different materials. For example, if there are plastics that have different densities or non-plastic components, the recycling process becomes much more complex and expensive, when not impossible. Packaging using one material or bioplastics are therefore to be preferred, as they are now increasingly available in supermarkets and looked for by average customers. However, there is an important point to be made: bioplastic does not mean spontaneous degradability in the environment. In fact, biobased plastics can remain in the environment for years as those derived from oil. This means that also bioplastic is to be properly disposed of.

The mentioned study by Coop has shown that over 60% consumers is willing to pay a surcharge for recyclable plastics. This means that we are starting to consider preferable products that are ecological.

Another important solution that many European countries have been adopting, and that probably our grandparents remember quite well, is the system of returnable bottles. It is actually very simple: returning one’s bottles so that they can be reutilized. This old/new practice has several positive effects.

Again, we can refer to the study by Coop: it is estimated that by adhering to this system, every family would save approximately one thousand PET bottles, and therefore 100 euro, per year. The change is under way!

Maybe we will never be ready for a completely plastic free world, but we are surely progressing towards a new way of thinking about plastic: not just a valueless material that is made to be dumped, but something precious to be respected and used wisely.

By Matteo Guido Rogora

Translated by: Elena Briasco

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