Plastic pollution: how recycling is being used by big business to whitewash the damage they cause to the planet – Stephen Jardine

In the case of the apple, the challenge was how to keep the fruit moist, firm and fresh. The solution was for the fruit to develop its own waxy coating to seal in the goodness and, since Adam and Eve, that worked pretty well.

Then came the supermarket retailers and, of course, they knew better. Not content with letting the apple protect itself as it had since the dawn of time, they decided it had to be wrapped in plastic. Or better yet, in a cardboard tray with a sturdy plastic lid.

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And that trend is why the Big Plastic Count released its appalling findings this week: A survey of 100,000 households found that the UK throws away around 100 billion pieces of plastic each year, with recycling not even not a dent in the problem.

According to Greenpeace, only 12% of this waste ends up being recycled, 25% is landfilled and 46% is burned. “Pretending we can sort this out with recycling is just industry greenwashing,” a spokesperson said.

Plastic comes in all shapes and sizes, but the survey clearly indicates that food retail is the biggest problem. For the average household, 83% of the plastic thrown away each week comes from this source, with the most common items being fruit and vegetable packaging.

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Recently, recycling has been a way for us to feel a little more comfortable with the crisis facing our planet. By washing milk cartons and carefully removing lids from yoghurt pots, we feel like we’re doing our part to avoid oblivion and thus be able to sleep safely. The reality is quite different.

Despite operations like this, most plastic waste ends up in landfills or is burned (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

“Recycling doesn’t work, we all know that,” said Daniel Webb, founder of Everyday Plastic. “If we think things are recycled, we can carry on as we are.”

Recycling also makes us responsible. We feel guilty if we forget to bring a bag to the supermarket and buy a new one. We punish those who put things in the wrong bin or don’t realize that many coffee cups aren’t disposable.

The truth is, it’s not our fault. The blame for the plastic epidemic lies with food manufacturers and large retailers. Over the years they have conditioned us to expect fruit and vegetables to be wrapped in plastic to the point that when a supermarket recently tried to move away from that, it instantly lost market share.

We have to break the belief system behind all of this. Instead of organizations like Zero Waste Scotland urging consumers to recycle better, resources should be invested in public information campaigns to raise awareness of the damage plastic is doing to our own environment, so we are demanding a change.

Governments should also legislate to restrict plastic packaging in retail and provide green tax breaks for those who try different solutions.

New laws on single-use plastics like straws and stirrers were introduced last month, but they are just a drop in the ocean. We must go further and faster.

Consumers have a role to play in demanding change and using their purchasing power, but that will only happen when big business chooses to take a different approach or is forced to do so.

Bryce K. Locke