Plastic – what are our responsibilities?

Walk into any public building such as a mall, grocery store or movie theater and you will see thousands of products all very beautifully wrapped in shiny multi-coloured plastic packaging. Soft-drink bottles, chocolate bars, yogurt, cereal and even fruit and vegetables wrapped up in plastic. Hard plastic, soft plastic, clear plastic, colourful plastic.

Now, there is no doubt that plastic is one of, if not the most abundant and useful material in the world. I actually don’t know how much of what we see around us would even be possible without plastic – especially in terms of technology such as electronics and transportation. However, most people don’t recycle at home and most businesses don’t recycle. So, there is this massive amount of plastic being generated and most of it is just ending up in a landfill – you know the place where a huge pile of waste is put into the ground? I really don’t know much about the various kinds of plastic but from what i have read it is an extremely long lasting material which brings me to my main point – why do we use an incredibly long lasting material for items that only last a days or a week or two at most? Ice cream, soft drinks, chocolate, cigarettes – all fast moving consumer goods, are all heavily packaged in plastic, yet only last a few days or weeks on the shelves and then a matter of minutes or hours after being consumed. The packaging is then thrown into the trash.

My responsibility ends here
My responsibility ends here

Many of these product companies show a little man throwing his trash so responsibly into a bin on the packaging of their products- where do they think this is actually going? Do they care at all if the packaging that they create in such enormous quantities ends up in a landfill, a river or on the streets? Once the sale is done do they care? Should they care?

I believe that any company which creates something which is going to be around for decades or centuries has the responsibility to care about what happens to it after the sale is over. I suppose it’s just part of our short-sighted money driven culture  – to not know or care what happens once the money is in the bank. But when the landfills are over-flowing (already happening in Johannesburg – seen it with my own eyes), what are we going to do about it? Some companies are now adding information about what the packaging is made from and encouraging consumers to recycle, which is good. Some retailers even have recycling bins outside their stores. Personally, I try to stay away from items packaged in plastic (not always possible). If unavoidable, I separate and recycle everything that I can. If I’m traveling or I can’t keep my empty plastic bottle or wrappers on me until I find a recycling spot, only then will I reluctantly put it into the bin. Even then – making sure the empty container is clean (if possible) ensures that it is recyclable. If the waste company servicing that particular bin happens to separate and recycle then at least that container is averted from ending up in a landfill and the methane which may be generated from rotting food left inside the container is also avoided.

Crazy idea, but I think where possible, the packaging material of products should be inline with the lifespan of the product. So projects like infrastructure, telecommunications, transport – things that will be important for a very long time to come should harness the longevity of plastic, while things like junk food and FMCG products should be forced to use short-term materials or at least biodegradable materials due to the massive quantities they are produced in and their very short life spans.

I think we will see far more biodegradable packaging in the near future and I hope companies which produce large volumes of plastic begin to think about the unnecessary impact they are having on the environment. Hopefully there will also be tighter regulations on the production of these materials. Thanks for reading!

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