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Plastic, plastic everywhere?

The largest market for plastics is packaging, where growth was accelerated with the global shift from reusable to single-use containers.

The largest market for plastics is packaging, where growth was accelerated with the global shift from reusable to single-use containers.

Plastic is ubiquitous, and its presence daunting. Today, a world without plastics seems unimaginable, yet their large-scale production and use only dates back to 1950. Growth in its use exploded during the 20th century, leading to acceleration in use as part of progress in many areas of human activities. The rapid growth of plastic production is extraordinary, surpassing most other manmade materials.

Plastics, or synthetic polymers, are shatter-resistant, waterproof, lightweight, durable and strong – all features which are attractive to consumers. The material has become irreplaceable in the domains of packaging, electrical industry, shipbuilding, chemical industry, transportation, car industry, aircraft industry, civil engineering as well as in the areas of mass consumption (Vujic et al., 2010).

The largest market for plastics is packaging, where growth was accelerated with the global shift from reusable to single-use containers.

The one-way container not only liberated consumers from returning bottles, but also freed retailers from the burden of managing deposit return systems and bottlers from having to wash and inspect returned bottles.

But like anything else, convenience is not without its price. Its widespread use and durability has caused it to penetrate marine life, the food chain and ultimately impact human health. Many are now in panic over the crisis.

Authorities in various countries are now setting deposit-refund schemes mainly focused on the collection of plastic bottles. Other are speaking of banning plastic cutlery and other one-way products. These schemes are commendable and generally succeed with a high return rate. Recycling of plastic is a positive activity that should be promoted. However, recycling has its limitations. Plastic, for one thing, is made of polymers which are sensitive to elevated temperatures and therefore lose properties with every recycling step.

Business organisations, as part of an overall economic system, also need to examine the plastic they are producing and consuming. This is in itself an additional cost for them and therefore worth examining. People have become accustomed to having items individually wrapped even though the necessity for this is trivial. Personally, at the Ta’ Qali vegetable market, I have seen people demanding a plastic bag for one marrow and another separate bag for three small carrots. In supermarkets, the deli section hands out one plastic container after the other with half-filled items.

While the consumer demand is there, people are becoming more aware, with many of them resorting to the social media to express their frustration. Therefore, the costs for businesses are not only financial.

Business organisations need to look at the factors that are contributing to the generation of plastic. Sure, if people take the containers home with them, disposal is not their issue but the cost of purchasing these items also needs to be considered. What if supermarkets encouraged people to bring their own containers and vegetable sellers asked people if they really need another bag?

Adopting this mentality goes a long way to show commitment towards society at large. This is a form of corporate social responsibility everyone can practise with very little effort.

The question to start with is a simple one: “What are the disposable plastic items I am purchasing?” Then look at the costs and whether it is possible to replace them. Eco-designed products are gaining popularity, as well as initiatives to reduce waste at source.

The alternatives are available – we just need to look at them.

Margaret Camilleri Fenech carries out research in the area of waste management. She is a visiting assistant lecturer at the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta.

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