Last updated: September 2013
Packaging and the impact of plastic bottles
58% of fizzy drinks are packaged using PET plastic bottles. The remaining 42% of fizzy drinks are packaged using a mix of glass bottles, steel and aluminium cans. A few issues about each type of packaging are presented in the table below.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
An area of marine debris, roughly the size of Texas, floats within the Pacific Ocean. This ‘Garbage Patch’ lies between California and Hawaii and, despite belief to the contrary, cannot be seen easily with the naked eye, let alone from space. It is predominantly made up of thousands of tiny pieces of floating plastic called micro-plastics. Scientists have collected up to 1.9 million bits of plastic per square mile.
As noted by Greenpeace, “a single one litre bottle could break down into enough small fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world”. These micro-plastics can disturb marine food webs by blocking sunlight from reaching algae and plankton, in addition to acting like sponges- absorbing toxic chemicals – which are then digested by marine wildlife and eventually us.[2,4]
Due to ocean current circulation, floating marine debris is transported to ‘natural gathering points’ within the oceans – as seen with the North Pacific Garbage Patch. These patches are created by gyres – circular ocean currents- whose centres are very calm and stable. Once debris enters the gyre’s centre it stays, resulting in a build up of rubbish.
No country will take the responsibility for cleaning the trash up as the Pacific Garbage Patch lies far from any coastline and is made up of waste from several nations – primarily North America and Asia.39 This tricky task has been left to International organisations such as the Plastic Soup Foundation.
David Jones from the Plastic Oceans Foundation explores the issues associated with plastic pollution
The invention of plastic has brought about a new era in the history of mankind. It is quite possible that, in several hundred years time, people will look back on the 20th century as the ‘plastic period’ in the same way that archaeologists and anthropologists regard the Iron and Bronze ages, or the age of steam. Since their introduction, plastics have become an integral part of our lives.
The myriad properties and usefulness of plastic has resulted in an exponential proliferation and pervasiveness on a global scale. Plastic pollution now reaches virtually every part of the planet. More recently, the most significant growth has been in single use disposable products. Packaging is the largest end use market segment, accounting for 40% of the total plastic produced. Not surprisingly, as this is a disposable product, it has become the major pollutant.
Once thrown away, plastic has the opportunity to enter the water course and eventually the oceans. And while plastic waste only accounts for about 10% of the total amount of waste we generate, it is responsible for up to 80%, or sometimes more, of the waste that accumulates on land, shorelines, the ocean surface or the seabed.
Plastic pollution is having a significant environmental and economic impact. One estimate (from 2008) was that plastic pollution alone is costing developing and industrialized nations up to $1.27 billion annually as it threatens the fishing, shipping and tourism industries. It threatens our marine animals through ingestion and entanglement, and our ecosystems as a vector for invasive species.
However perhaps the most insidious threat is to human health. Plastic does not go away but, under the influence of waves and sunlight, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. These particles (which outnumber plankton in some regions) are entering the food chain and releasing chemicals into the fish that eat them. These ingested particles are retained within the fish’s digestive system and slowly release chemicals into its body. Once consumed by us, these chemicals are slowly released into our bodies. Some of these chemicals have the ability to disrupt the endocrine system of humans and cause cancers.
There is no simple answer to the problem of plastic waste in the oceans or around the globe. Anyone who says that the solution lies in recycling, or biodegradable products has not addressed the underlying issue; that is, plastic waste is the result of Poor Waste Management Systems or human neglect, and the issue of plastic pollution not yet being considered an urgent matter. The real challenge to finding a solution therefore, is to determine how to change our own attitudes and behaviour alongside the development of a strategic mix of alternative processes, technologies and materials.
Alternatives to plastic bottles
Only 52% of plastic bottles within households and 25% of total plastic packaging were recycled in the UK in 2012. This places the UK in 25th position out of 29 EU countries for plastic recycling and energy recovery.
Consumers therefore need a viable alternative to plastic bottles. These are discussed in a paper by David Jones, who wrote the article above. His discussion is summarised as follows:
Bioplastics – those made from corn starch – and biodegradable bottles are the industry’s solution, but these have huge issues associated with them. Some are only partially plant based, e.g. The Coca Cola company is currently developing a plant bottle containing 22.5% plant based PET, and so still rely heavily on oil based PET. Bioplastics utilise a potential food source when food is already in short supply in certain areas, they take a long time to degrade unless optimum conditions are provided, they cannot be mixed with oil based plastic recycling processes, no UK collection system for bioplastics currently exists and there are few commercial scale composting plants.
Additionally, they continue to suggest that single use items are acceptable – as do other packaging options: steel and aluminium cans, tetra packs and glass.
The way forward requires a social and cultural change, which will be forced upon us eventually as oil prices rise and oil based plastics are no longer a viable economic option.
Compulsory take-back schemes, reusable steel or aluminium bottles, and vending machines that can refill reuseable bottles have all been proposed as methods for replacing plastic bottles within the soft drinks industry.
SodaStream, a company providing home carbonation systems, is currently the best known of a few existing methods of refilling bottles with home-made carbonated beverages.
Sadly for Ethical Consumer, SodaStream is owned by an Israeli company who manufactures and provides these machines within an illegal West Bank Settlement.31 There are a number of consumer boycotts around the world as a consequence, for example sodastreamboycott.org. There is surely a gap in the market for an ethical alternative to this environmentally superior option.
The Plastic Oceans Foundation is a UK based charity that provides information and resources on plastic use in order to change behaviour. The key at this stage is education. People will not make changes unless they realise there is a problem and this is a major part of the Foundation’s current work.
Compulsory deposit schemes
Mandatory deposit schemes have become something of an extinct species within the UK, with consumers increasingly preferring single trip bottles – even when a financial incentive was offered. Proposals for their return, due to their environmental benefits, have been met by strong resistance from the soft drinks industry. The British Soft Drinks Association claimed that deposit schemes posed a “considerable financial and regulatory burden for retailers, in addition to raising health and safety issues’”
Successful deposit schemes still exist within Australia and the US, but have also faced fierce lobbying from soft drinks companies and industrial groups. The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) accused environmental groups of misleadingly promoting a deposit scheme which they claimed would, cost consumers more than if the scheme did not exist.
The Australian Government’s decision to introduce a deposit scheme within the Northern Territories in 2012 faced fierce opposition from Coca-Cola Amatil, Schweppes Australia Pty Ltd and Lion Pty Ltd. The companies claimed that the scheme was in conflict with Federal law governing trade between the States ‘prohibiting sales’.[11,13]
Despite fierce opposition from soft drink giants, campaigners continue to push for a container deposit scheme within the UK. To find out why and to get involved visit www.cpre.org.uk