November 5

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Climate Change and the Plastic Crisis

By George Howell

November 5, 2018

Climate Change, Politics

The plastic crisis has been all over the news lately and so it should be.  Most of the time the issue is presented from the perspective of plastic in the ocean.  We have all seen the pictures of animals killed by getting trapped in plastic and we all know that the micro-plastic particles can get into our food chain by being consumed by fish.

The World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in their 2016 study “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics” found that the equivalent of one dustbin lorry of plastic is dumped into the oceans every minute.  The study goes onto say that without significant action there may be more plastic in the oceans, by weight, than fish by 2050.

The plastic crisis is far from limited to the oceans, it also has an impact on climate change.  Plastic is made from petroleum, which comes from oil, a fossil fuel.  According to 1 Bag at a Time about 8-10% of total oil supply goes into making plastic bags.  This is carbon being released in to the atmosphere to make plastic bags.

We know that plastic causes greenhouse gas emissions in its production but another recent study has also shown that plastic releases greenhouse gases during degradation.  When exposed to ambient solar radiation the most commonly used plastics release methane and ethylene.  These climate-relevant trace gases are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulates in the environment, according to Sarah-Jeanne Royer in her study “Production of Methane and Ethylene from Plastic in the Environment”.

Plastic has become the material of choice in our ultra-high convenience driven economy.  It has, in differing situations, been considered convenient, light, cheap, disposable and safe but it is not sustainable.

When I first started running Sage Wholefoods in 1997 we bagged are own wholefood products.  This was time-consuming, we ran into problems with infestations in the loose foods and we had to make sure our scales were always measuring correctly.  We quickly decided to buy in only pre-packed wholefoods as this solved all those problems.

Today we have to think again.  I am longing for our suppliers to develop sustainably-produced and fully degradable packaging from plant fibres because the benefits of plastic (convenient, light, cheap, disposable and safe) are still important.  But in the absence of that I will be making some changes.

In 2010 I introduced household cleaning refills.  Customers bring back their household cleaning bottles and refill them from our containers.  The containers themselves are returned to our supplier to be reused.  Earlier this year, I decided that we could no longer supply plastic carrier bags at a cost or free.  The carrier bags we had been using were degradable but not quickly enough for my liking and I was concerned about micro-particles from them getting into the environment.

But we have to go further.  I am looking at self-serve systems for our wholefood products.  Customers will be able to bring their own containers to refill.  I am looking to replace products currently packaged in plastic with others packaged in cardboard or glass.  There is a long way to go, but I am determined that Indigo Wholefoods will have the lightest conceivable impact on the environment.

 

George Howell

About the author

George Howell has been running Wholefood Shops in Moseley, Birmingham, UK since 1997 and has been an environmentalist since the mid-80's when, as a child, his mother took him to Friends of the Earth. He is committed to making a difference for people, for Moseley and for the environment.

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