What does a zero-waste world look like?

Over recent years the scale of plastic pollution and its chokehold on nature has floated to the top of people’s environmental priorities but remains low on the government’s agenda. Instead of putting the onus on individuals to buy plastic-free products, what if we lived in a world free from unnecessary plastic? And what would it take to get there?
  Published:  10 May 2022    |      3 minute read

Relying on individuals to make plastic-free choices is unfair. For starters, plastic-free alternatives are not yet accessible and affordable to everyone. What’s more, this approach shifts the blame and guilt of a plastic-polluted environment from government and industry onto the individual. Instead, the producers and regulators of the problem should own up and commit to change. So, what could be done?

Plastic-free supermarkets?

Supermarket aisles in the UK could be free of unnecessary plastic packaging, which is often single use, if they follow the example set in France and (soon) Spain by ditching plastic packaging used for fresh fruit and veg.

A key concern preventing shoppers from supporting plastic-free fruit and veg in the UK is the idea that perishable food goes off sooner. But plastic wrapping was first used on produce to prevent contamination, not to prolong their life, and many foods go off sooner when sealed in plastic packaging due to “sweating”.

Supermarkets could also install refill stations so that customers can refill their own re-usable tubs or jars with dried products like pasta, oats, lentils and so on. And the same could be done for laundry detergent, washing up liquid and shampoo, with supermarkets stocking the industrial size versions so consumers like you and I can just bring back our original container and refill it while doing the weekly shop. If refill stations are done properly, this option should be cheaper too.

A food refill station with stocks of beans, oats, lentils and dried produce.
A food refill station
Credit: SolStock via Getty Images

In countries that have the lowest waste levels, at least a quarter of all supermarkets use the refillable model alongside a deposit return system (where you can bring back your container, like a plastic or glass bottle, and get money back for it). For example, nearly 60% of supermarkets in the Philippines had refill stations in 2019, and over half of all supermarkets in Germany and Colombia, proving that it’s not just possible but successful.

The dangers of microplastics

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that either come from bigger pieces of plastic when they break down, or when they’re used in the making of products. They can be as small as a particle of dust and up to the size of a grain of rice.

We know microplastics are already damaging our environment and wildlife – they’ve polluted pretty much everywhere, from deep ocean trenches to the peak of Mount Everest. Sadly, the impact on animals can be fatal. Creatures that eat microplastics can get ill from the toxic chemicals that stick to them, or they fill up on plastic rather than nutritional food, causing them to starve and die.

The impact of microplastics on our own health (from eating animals that have eaten the microplastics or directly ingesting them ourselves) is still being researched, but we know that microplastics do make it into our bodies – they’ve been detected in our blood, in our muscles and even in human placenta. The UK government needs to up its game to better support this important research and fund innovations to combat the pollution.

Tackle microplastics at source

The government should introduce financial incentives for businesses that produce goods made with plastic, like clothes, car tyres and carpets, to use less or no plastic, and could go as far as penalising those that don’t adapt to protect the environment. One such industry in major need of a rehaul is fast fashion.

The term fast fashion says it all. It incentivises people to frequently buy cheap new clothes rather than keeping clothes for longer and reusing them. This is a problem because clothes lose most microplastic fibres in the first few washes, so the more clothes you buy, use and discard, the more plastic ends up seeping into our waterways. What’s more, cheaply made clothes are more likely to end up in landfills where they continue polluting the environment.

Create jobs with a zero-waste economy

It’s estimated that zero waste economies create over 200 times as many jobs as economies based on landfills and incinerators. And for the UK more specifically, a circular economy could create more than 200,000 jobs by 2030.

A circular economy is where products are designed with their whole life cycle in mind, re-using, sharing and repairing to extend their useful life, and then when their life is deemed over, re-manufacturing to create new products from old.

It’s an all-encompassing approach to life and business, where everything has value, and nothing is wasted.

Despite the obvious benefits of reducing waste and creating more jobs, the UK government still prioritises recycling above newer solutions, even though recycling should be the last resort when dealing with waste. Recycling should only happen if reduction, reuse, or repair isn’t possible.

A world free of unnecessary plastic is possible within this generation’s reach and achieved before our younger generations are burdened with the problem, if the government steps up and modernises its approach to plastic pollution.

People and nature urgently need strong targets to reduce all forms of pollution.

People and nature urgently need strong targets to reduce all forms of pollution.

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