Plas­tic cre­ates prob­lems that last for­ever. It's time busi­nesses re­duced its use in pack­ag­ing

BC Business Magazine - - Contents - by Steve Burgess

Why busi­ness should re­think its re­la­tion­ship with plas­tic

Whole foods? Great in the­ory, but in real life in­con­ve­nient and an­noy­ing. Much bet­ter to cut them up and en­close them in plas­tic. Pre­sum­ably that's why the Whole Foods Mar­ket Inc. su­per­mar­ket chain briefly tried mar­ket­ing pre-peeled or­anges in plas­tic con­tain­ers—at least un­til a Twit­ter user named Nathalie Gor­don came across the prod­uct in a Cal­i­for­nia store in 2016. Her photo, posted with the com­ment “If only na­ture would find a way to cover th­ese or­anges so we didn't need to waste so much plas­tic on them,” in­spired a furor and forced Whole Foods to go back to the old­school prac­tice of sell­ing or­anges pack­aged in orange peels.

Plas­tic has long been essen­tial to mod­ern re­tail­ing—pack­ag­ing, ship­ping and brand­ing. San­i­ta­tion, shelf life and bright lo­gos are among the ad­van­tages of­fered by plas­tic pack­ag­ing. And the dis­ad­van­tages? Those are, so to speak, down­stream. “Plas­tic never biode­grades; it only gets bro­ken down into smaller and smaller pieces called mi­cro-plas­tics,” says Bri­anne Miller, co-founder of Zero Waste Mar­ket, a pack­age-free gro­cery store that has opened var­i­ous pop-up lo­ca­tions in Van­cou­ver. “Mi­cro-plas­tics eas­ily make their way into the food chain when they are con­sumed by an­i­mals and fish lower on the food chain,” Miller adds. “When th­ese fish and birds

get eaten by big­ger ones, and ul­ti­mately by peo­ple at the top of the food chain, the tox­ins bioac­cu­mu­late, re­sult­ing in much higher con­cen­tra­tions.”

Imag­ine life on Earth if no one ever died. Then con­sider that vir­tu­ally all of the plas­tic ever cre­ated still ex­ists. A plas­tic wa­ter bot­tle has an es­ti­mated life of 450 years. “Many of us don't make the con­nec­tion that once a plas­tic item is cre­ated, it never goes away,” Miller says. “It only changes form.”

A 2015 study pub­lished in the jour­nal Science de­ter­mined that 4.8 to 12.7 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic ended up in the ocean in 2010 alone and pre­dicted a ten­fold in­crease over the next 10 years.

But the prob­lem isn't de­fined sim­ply by ex­cess use of plas­tic pack­ag­ing— it's the fol­low-up, or lack of it. Any­one who's ever shopped in Ja­pan has en­coun­tered that na­tion's al­most bizarre lay­ers of prod­uct swad­dling— pears en­cased in in­di­vid­ual foam web­bing, then placed in boxes filled with shred­ded pack­ing ma­te­rial, the box then wrapped and bagged; ba­nanas sit­ting on store shelves, sheathed in plas­tic. And yet Ja­pan's pro­por­tional con­tri­bu­tion to the global plas­tic glut doesn't ap­proach that of China be­cause Ja­pan is bet­ter at re­cy­cling. Laws in place since 1997 re­quire sep­a­ra­tion of plas­tics, and there are elab­o­rate trash col­lec­tion sched­ules spec­i­fy­ing pickup days for different ma­te­ri­als.

In some cases, plas­tic pack­ag­ing is a great way to pre­vent spoilage, break­age and food waste, Miller says. Whether it's the best choice is a com­pli­cated ques­tion re­quir­ing a life cy­cle anal­y­sis for each pack­age. “There is a fine line be­tween pack­ag­ing that is nec­es­sary and pack­ag­ing that is not,” she ex­plains. “That be­ing said, we know that land­fill­ing and re­cy­cling is not the an­swer and that plas­tic pol­lu­tion needs to be tack­led at the source.”

Sexy brand­ing is a driver of plas­tic use, but Miller in­sists that busi­nesses can still meet brand­ing and mar­ket­ing needs with­out ex­ces­sive pack­ag­ing. Reusable con­tainer pro­grams, dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing and in-store dis­plays can all be ef­fec­tive, she says. Any busi­ness can take steps to re­duce waste—with a po­ten­tial bonus of cost sav­ings.

The City of Van­cou­ver is de­vel­op­ing a zero waste strat­egy with an am­bi­tious tar­get of di­vert­ing 100 per cent of waste from land­fill by 2040. Miller notes that many coun­tries have banned sin­gle-use plas­tics such as cut­lery, bags and con­tain­ers, an ex­am­ple she would like to see Cana­dian prov­inces and cities fol­low.

An as­so­ci­a­tion of B.C. brew­ers, in­clud­ing the lo­cal di­vi­sions of Mol­son Coors Brew­ing Co. and La­batt Brew­ing Co., re­cently an­nounced plans to re­cy­cle pack­ag­ing in ad­di­tion to bot­tles and cans, while the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium will no longer sell wa­ter in sin­gle-use plas­tic bot­tles. “When we were young, we were taught the three Rs,” Miller says. “We'd love to see as many schools as pos­si­ble teach­ing the five Rs: refuse, re­duce, re­use, re­cy­cle and rot, or com­post. We hope a more in­formed gen­er­a­tion will be in­spired to take ac­tion.”

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