Living sustainably: Picking the lesser of two evils

The magazines New Scientist and National Geographic both featured plastic pollution as the main cover story recently. Since the broadcasting of Blue Planet II last year, we are suddenly aware of the prevalence of plastic in the environment. A zero waste movement is now well underway and I hope to join it with my own zero waste shop. But after looking into the issue more closely, I’ve come to realise it’s not the case that all plastics are bad. Just as with many other environmental issues, it’s more complex than that. So, often I find that living more sustainably comes down to picking the lesser of two evils. This is why I’ve created some rules.

Sustainable shopping, that is finding products that are organic, fair-trade, not wrapped in single-use plastic and/or don’t contain palm oil, is nearly impossible in a normal supermarket. When entering the fruit and veg aisle, I’m immediately confronted with the dilemma of picking between organic produce wrapped in plastic or non-organic produce without plastic. Either I contribute to the piles of single-use plastics we have already discarded or support industrial agriculture which heavily relies on fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides. To make shopping easier, I have come up with a rule: I choose non-organic if it’s British and not wrapped in plastic and organic if both options are wrapped in plastics or the produce comes from abroad. My logic behind that is that I support British farmers, avoid single use plastic and transport miles when picking the non-organic option. In turn, when choosing a product from abroad that had to be transported long distances and is additionally wrapped in plastic, then it should at least be organic.

Paper is often the choice to replace plastic, particularly when it comes to bags, but the environmental impact of a paper bag can be higher than that of a plastic bag. So when it comes to shopping the best option is to take a reusable bag with you. But does that also mean that plastic packaging is better than paper packaging? The problem is that producing and recycling a paper bag requires more energy and thus emits more greenhouse gases than producing and recycling a plastic bag. According to a study by Riverford and the University of Essex, about 10 grams of CO2 are emitted for every plastic bag and about 45 grams of CO2 for every paper bag. To put this into perspective, when driving your car you probably emit about 120 grams by kilometre. So driving one kilometre to a shop emits as much CO2 as walking whilst carrying 12 plastic bags or 3 paper bags. Considering this and the fact that plastic is made from a non-renewable resource and stays in the environment for hundreds of years, posing a threat to wildlife, I wonder if paper is really that bad?

Carbon Footprint
Carbon footprint of driving one kilometre equals using twelve plastic bags or three paper bags

Ultimately both paper and plastic leave an environmental footprint from production to disposal. So the best thing we can do is to reduce the amount of paper and plastic we use and to avoid single-use plastic, with the second best option being reusing and recycling the packaging that we use. The latter underpins the concept of a circular economy which ideally will be powered by renewable energy. Then, paper would definitely be my packaging material of choice.

In theory, addressing the problem of plastic pollution should be easier than tackling climate change as we know what we have to do: using less plastic, improving waste collection and creating recycling facilities. But just as with climate change, I believe it’s not only the system that needs to change but also our attitudes and consumption behaviours.

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