There are some, however, who warn that abandoning plastic after nearly 70 years of using it to package our food could have other far more costly, unintended consequences.
What may at first appear to be a wasteful plastic bag wrapped around your cucumber, for example, is actually a sophisticated tool for increasing the shelf-life of your food. Years of research have allowed plastics to push the time food lasts for from days to weeks.
“I think people underestimate the benefits of plastics in reducing food waste,” says Anthony Ryan, professor of chemistry and director of The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.
The shrink wrap used on cucumbers for instance, can more than double the length of time the vegetable can last, allowing it to be kept for up to 15 days in the fridge and cutting food waste in half. An unwrapped cucumber would last just two days at room temperature and 9 days if refrigerated.
A meaty problem
Beef bought in polystyrene foam trays covered with plastic film will generally last between three and seven days. However if it is vacuum-packed in multilayer plastic, it can be kept for up to 45 days without spoiling. Environmental accounting firm Trucost estimate that vacuum-packing sirloin steak can cut food waste almost in half compared to conventional plastic.
Much of the food we now buy in supermarkets comes tightly wrapped in sealed plastic films and protective trays. This keeps fresh meat in an oxygen-free atmosphere, helping to prevent it from spoiling. Delicate fruit and vegetables are also kept safe from bumps that can degrade them, meaning they’re more likely to be sold. Putting grapes in their own individual plastic boxes has been found to cut food waste by 75%.
Plastic wrapping can also keep fruit and vegetables in their own little microclimates – known in the industry as modified atmosphere packaging – which can help to prevent them from ripening too quicky. Putting sweet peppers into a bag with a modified atmosphere can extend their lifespan from four days to 20, according to the Flexible Packaging Association. Extending the shelf life of food can greatly reduce the cost of food waste to supermarkets. Extending the shelf life of produce by just one day would save shoppers in the UK up to £500 million ($661m), according to anti-waste charity Wrap.
The global cost of food waste is already estimated to be almost $1 trillion a year, which is largely borne by manufacturers and retailers. While some believe that single-use plastic packaging has actually led to an increase in the amount of food we throw away by encouraging a culture of disposability, many in the plastics industry argue that without plastic packaging, the cost of food waste could rise.
In this light, it might not make sense to ban plastics altogether but instead make plastics better.
“Rather than going back, it is perhaps more useful to look at innovation,” says Eliot Whittington. “There are more and more companies that are reinventing plastics with additives that help them break down or making plastics that are biodegradable.”
Whittington points to the growing bioplastics industry, which uses starch or protein from plants like sugarcane to generate the basic hydrocarbon materials needed to create plastics. Some of these bioplastics are not biodegradable at all, but others – like polylactic acid (PLA) – can break down over time and some are compostable, meaning they disintegrate entirely rather than merely crumbling into smaller “microplastics”.
One company that has already shifted to bioplastic is British skincare company Bulldog. It has swapped its traditional plastic tubes for polyethylene made from sugarcane.
The new tubes are more expensive but “we still think it is the right thing to do,” says Simon Duffy, the company’s founder.
Another bioplastics leader is Coca-Cola, which two years ago launched the PlantBottle, a PET partially made with Brazilian sugarcane. It too has found that producing bottles from plants comes at a premium, although it wouldn’t share with BBC Capital what this cost was.
Looking at a few examples, however, it becomes apparent just how much more expensive bioplastics can be.
A burger box made from sugarcane for instance, is almost twice as expensive as one made from polystyrene. A biodegradable takeaway fork made from plant starch costs 3.5 times more than a basic white plastic one.
Neither Bulldog or Coca-Cola are using bioplastics that can be considered biodegradable or compostable, instead encouraging consumers to recycle their bioplastics. And, in fact, there is some resistance to the widespread use of biodegradable materials.
“Bioplastics like PLA are huge contaminate for traditional recycling,” says Dick Searle.
Surprisingly, due to rising oil prices, recycled plastic is actually cheaper to use than fresh, virgin plastic made from oil. A tonne of virgin PET costs around £1,000 while clear recycled PET costs just £158 per tonne.
Contamination of PET plastic with PLA, however, can leave the resulting bottle weaker and unfit for use, meaning the whole batch will have to be discarded. As manufacturers try to reduce their plastic footprint by using greener, biodegradable plastics, the risk of mixing with conventional plastics will only increase, potentially driving up the cost of recycled materials.
“Introducing these innovative products in a system that is used to more traditional waste stream is difficult economically,” says Whittington.
It is a problem that will require new ways of identifying, sorting and dealing with plastic materials when they are thrown away to ensure biodegradable materials are kept separate from those that can be recycled.
But Anthony Ryan sees other problems with the widespread use of biodegradable packaging.
“It treats the symptoms, not the disease,” he says. “If the disease is our throw-away society, making packaging biodegradable only encourages people to throw more away.”
Instead, he suggests another solution: use more plastic.
“In modern meat or soft fruit packaging you might have several thin layers to give it strength, to stop gas permeability and to act as an adhesive,” he explains. “You could get all of these properties from a single thicker piece of polyethylene. Then you would have a reduced set of materials, which would make separating and recycling this stuff easier.”
He believes that making plastics more durable could help solve the current waste problem that is blighting our planet. Rather than abolishing plastics altogether, he proposes reusing the packaging we currently throw away.
Already deposit and reuse schemes like this – where plastic bottles are returned in exchange for a cash deposit and then are refilled – are in use in Finland, Germany, Denmark and parts of Australia.
According to research by the European Commission, however, reuse and refill schemes like this can work out to be up to five times more expensive than using packaging once and then throwing it away. But the World Economic Forum found innovative reuse and refill measures could actually reduce packaging costs by at least $8 billion a year,savings that could potentially be passed onto consumers.
And as many countries seek to introduce new laws that will put new levies on plastic bags and ban certain types of single use packaging, refillable and reusable options may become more attractive.
For Claire Waluda, whose team is monitoring the levels of plastic waste in South Georgia, the price of making these changes is one worth paying.
“We are seeing wandering albatross parents feeding plastic to their chicks,” she says. “Anything that can reduce the amount of plastic debris in the environment is a step in the right direction.”