I read an Instagram post the other day @lowtoxlife that quoted the number of plastic bottles produced by Coca-Cola (120 billion/year and the world’s top plastic polluter according to @greenpeace) and suggested that the best option to address this for people and planet was to stop consuming the ultra-processed food that they produce. I completely agree, except that I don’t think it is feasible for us to expect everyone to stop consuming processed foods, I think we need to look at other options as well.
I agree that everyone should be strongly encouraged to reduce the amount of sugary drinks and ultra-processed food they consume, for the very many health benefits it will bring (as an example see Hockey and Marx 2021; Brukner 2018; and Stuart 2018). And I doubt there is a single Coca-Cola product that is not bad for people and planet, despite its original marketing. It’s sugary drinks are bad for our health and while the water they package may not be bad for us, in most of the developed world you can get a perfectly good drink of water from the tap without the plastic packaging, which is ultimately bad for the health of people and the environment (particularly as we are inextricably linked).
But I do not believe that we will convince all people to stop consuming Coca-Cola, Pepsi or Nestle products, amongst others. Even if we did, we would then need to address the issue of unemployment for the 1000’s of people who would be out of work. According to The Coca-Cola Company, along with its 225 bottling partners they employ 700,000 people worldwide. That is a lot of people to find alternative employment for.
The Coca-Cola Company (2021) has the goal to make 100% of its packaging recyclable globally by 2025, in 2020 it was at 90%. It also has the goal to use at least 50% recycled material in its packaging by 2030. In 2020 this was 22% across all materials and 11.5% for PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic. Three markets have moved to 100% recycled PET for their entire plastic packaging portfolio – Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. Some beverages are packaged in 100% recycled PET in 15 other countries, including Australia, but the United States is not one of those markets. They are also working on refillable options and bottles made specifically from marine harvested plastic.
Should we expect more? I accept that establishing food grade recycled plastic is not straightforward but if 100% recycled plastic is possible then the goal should be to use 100% recycled plastic across all products and in all markets.
The Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) works with government and business to reduce the environmental impact of packaging in Australia. The 2025 national packaging targets are:
- 100% of packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025
- 70% of plastic packaging being recycled or composted by 2025
- 50% of average recycled content included in packaging by 2025
- The phase out of problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging by 2025.
APCO has additional material specific targets for the recycled content of plastic packaging being:
- polyethylene (PET) (30%)
- high-density polyethylene (HDPE) (20%)
- polypropylene (PP) (20%).
As demonstrated in the Coca-Cola example above, 100% recycled PET content is possible, so perhaps our targets are too low.
On 27 April 2021, I attended an online workshop hosted by the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN) in which a number of academic and industry representatives spoke about the technology readiness in waste reduction and resource recovery, specifically for milk bottles (HDPE).
Dr Melita Jazbec from the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, spoke at the workshop about the actions needed to create a plastic circular economy. We need to remove non-recyclable materials and over packaging, improve plastic collection and recycling practices to reduce leakage in the waste stream whereby not all plastic bottles manufactured make it to recycling (some are lost to landfill or the ocean), and expand the reuse options. If we can get all of this right then we can reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, the link with climate change, and the overall environmental impact of plastic.
Others spoke about their investigations into how to best remove the labels from milk bottles to improve the quality of the recycled plastic for reuse. While they are still a long way from having a workable solution, they do have a theory that is being tested and looks promising.
One of the attendees asked why we don’t just go back to the old glass milk bottles, and I have often wondered this myself. The presenter noted that glass bottles only lasted on average five uses before they were damaged, so they didn’t have as long a reuse cycle as imagined, nor long enough to make the life cycle assessment more favourable. The life cycle assessment of glass versus plastic, given the high heat required in the glass production and the transport costs due to its weight, came out in favour of recycled plastic as the better option for people and planet. I checked the literature and there are multiple papers supporting this position (for example see Stefanini et al. 2021).
Another presenter commented that plastic is not evil. It is an incredibly versatile, light product that has been used in everything from the seats you are sitting on and the equipment being used to record this presentation. I could add that it is also used in the manufacture of life support systems and it is definitely something that we would have difficulty learning to live without. But his comment also reminded me of some of the science fiction stories I have read, where the alien species comes to earth saying ‘let us in, we have the technology to cure all of your ills’ but in accepting this offer the human race then becomes a slave to the alien race, as we are to plastic.
I am also concerned about the health impacts of plastic, the carcinogens that are released into our food and drink, and the pollution of our waterways from macro- and micro- plastics if the waste is not collected appropriately. Gabrys et al. (2013) discuss, amongst other things, the endocrine disrupting effects of plastic and the plastic gyres forming in some oceans. This toxicity and the microplastics (4Ocean 2020) that wash out of our synthetic clothes and down the drain, have made me cautious about the expanded use of recycled plastic. Stefanini et al. (2021) suggests that recycled plastic has the lowest human carcinogenic toxicity compared to virgin plastic or glass, the latter largely being due to the lid choice. If this article is accurate then some of my hesitation about the use of recycled plastic is reduced.
If we can stop the leakage from the waste stream and increase the market for recycled plastic to make use of what we already have rather than creating new plastic, it will be much better for the long term health of people and the planet. And we can use a more positive message than telling people that they need to immediately give up their vices. I know there is only one planet and we are facing a climate crisis so time is of the essence but, if COVID-19 has taught us anything about consumer behaviour it’s that, if we propose a limit on the purchase of Coca-Cola there will be a mad rush to buy more.
What is your recommendation for reducing plastic waste?
References and reading list
4Ocean Team (2020) What are microplastics? And why you should care, 2 April 2020, accessed on 5 May 2021 at https://www.4ocean.com/blogs/blog/what-are-microplastics-and-why-you-should-care?
Australian Government, Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (n.d.) Australian Packaging Covenant, accessed on 5 May 2021 at https://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste/plastics-and-packaging/packaging-covenant
Brukner, P. (2018) A Fat lot of good: How the experts got food and diet so wrong and what you can do to take back control of your health, Penguin Random House, Australia.
The Coca-Cola Company (2021) 2020 Business & Environmental, Social and Governance Report, accessed on 5 May 2021 at https://www.coca-colacompany.com/sustainable-business/packaging-sustainability/design
Gabrys, J., Hawkins, G. and Michael, M. (eds.) (2013) Accumulations: The material politics of plastic. Routledge, Oxon.
Hockey, M. and Marx, W. (2021) “Clear evidence for a link between pro-inflammatory diets and 27 chronic diseases: here’s how you can eat better”, The Conversation, 22 April 2021.
Stefanini, R., Borghesi, G., Ronzano, A. (2021) ‘Plastic or glass: a new environmental assessment with a marine litter indicator for the comparison of pasteurized milk bottles’. Int J Life Cycle Assess 26: 767–784 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-020-01804-x
Stuart A. (2018) Low Tox Life: A handbook for a healthy you and a happy planet. Murdoch Books, Sydney.