Cutting Plastic Requires Getting Tackling Function, Cost, Perception And Taste

Colo­rful, slick and designed to catch the eye, plastic has for more than a century been the material of choice for pack­aging everything from peanut butter to pickles. But its prevalence is turning into a global headache, as plastic waste piles up, prompting a push to reduce the role of a material that, despite its many benefits, is seen as a threat to the planet and to human health.

There are myriad efforts to reduce the impact of plastic, from recyclable plastic bottles to plastic-free aisles in supermarkets, but the challenges to cutting plastic use are manifold, and the tension has emerged as a microcosm of a larger debate about the role of individual behavior, corporate responsibility, and government action in addressing the climate crisis.

'Functionality' Is a Challenge: Some shoppers are used to having their chicken sliced and encased in plastic, to the extent that they become resistant to alternatives.

'Less bad' Is Better Than Nothing: A sustainability expert says that while imperfect alternatives to plastic are better than nothing, 'we can't lose sight of the fact that "less bad" might not be enough'.

Alternatives Like Glass Require More Energy: Plastic's benefits, from being lighter to being more versatile, help explain its dominance, but that also means alternatives like glass use more energy in terms of transportation.

Cost Comes Into Play, Too: Shifting to more biodegradable materials, for example, can be costly for businesses and, in some cases, consumers.

'We Haven't Really Cracked This Nut': Experts say one key way to reduce plastic waste is to reuse items like containers, but this poses challenges too, including how to limit cross-contamination.

And Then There's Taste: Some plastics are treated with chemicals that can interact with food and drink, prompting complaints about taste.

New York's proposed law, which would require companies to reduce plastic packaging by 50% over 12 years, has run into snags, with opponents saying it could adversely affect products like sliced cheese. Amazon's decision to replace its plastic air pillows with recycled paper packing avoids the use of nearly 15 billion pillows annually. British grocery chain Aldi is selling wine in paper bottles and experimenting with paper bands to package bananas rather than plastic bags. Coca-Cola has tested plastic bottles without stick-on labels, using an embossed logo, to make them easier to recycle. Critics say some of these alternatives may not be as environmentally friendly as they seem, and the push to reduce plastic use underscores the complexity of the issue and the various players involved.

Goldmark stressed the need for businesses and policymakers to give their attention to eliminating plastic waste, saying the current situation is far from ideal.

"You don't want to have perfect be the enemy of good," she said. "Yet we can't lose sight of the fact that 'less bad' might not be enough."

Thøgersen emphasized the need for a systematic and coordinated approach to solving the problem, involving businesses, policymakers, and consumers.

"There are so many trade-offs," he said, highlighting the complexity of trying to balance issues like carbon emissions, food waste, and plastic pollution.

"We need to think systemically and avoid the single solution," he added.

In the meantime, with plastic pollution expected to increase by 30% in the next five years, the push to reduce plastic use, and the ensuing debates over how best to do so, show no signs of abating.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Times.

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