Consumer Choice in a Plastic World

Alex Canal
Jun 20, 2019 · 5 min read

What we do to the environment will affect us. We need to stop looking at nature as something which is other, separate from humans. We are part of nature and this is clear when we look at plastic pollution. It is becoming a major problem, one that is sure to take its toll on humans, not only because of the visual destruction to ocean environments, take the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. At six times the size of the UK, it is clearly a huge issue and only recently Greenpeace reported that the Mersey River in England has a higher concentration of microplastics than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Beyond the aesthetic, there is the physical damage that is inflicted on wildlife, for example, the ring at the top of a water bottle, that breaks away from the screw cap, can get stuck around a dolphin’s mouth inhibiting their ability to eat and leaving them to starve to death. It is a very real problem. Additionally, there is the ingestion of plastic, predominantly micro plastics, which eventually work their way up the food chain.

Let’s say a fish eats ten particles of micro plastic and then a larger fish eats ten of the smaller fish, ingesting 100 particles and then so on. The fish above that eats 2 of those fish, ending up with 200 particles of plastic. Finally, you eat one of those fish a day, constantly accumulating plastic as it goes into your body.

It poses a serious risk to humans and the health risks aren’t yet clear. A recent Canadian study found that humans consume 39,000 to 52,000 micro plastic particles a year, inhaling a further 20,000 to 30,000. Total for the high end of that we are thinking 82,000 at the low end 59,000.

We don’t have enough information on the risks and it’s reckless for us, to continue. We are making changes to our plastic usage, for example in the UK there is a tax on plastic bags. Starting off at 5p, and with plans to increase to 10p, alongside bans of single use plastic items, such as straws. These are good movements which are important, but then you see other shops starting to introduce pre sliced fruit in excessive packaging — it’s crazy. We need to start moving collectively in better directions.

The one supermarket that I would like to give credit to is Waitrose. Recently they opened a store in Oxford where you can you can bring tupperware to refill pasta, grains and cereals or bring bottles to refill with wine and it is a great idea. There are some independent stores operating in this way, but making it more mainstream, implementing it in large supermarket chains like Waitrose is a very big improvement and it will make a difference. Waitrose have also introduced biodegradable plastic bags, which is another positive move. Previously, when buying loose vegetables you would be putting it into another plastic bag, but with fully biodegradable bags, you’re cutting plastic out altogether.

When thinking about reducing plastic use we need to look at it from a few different perspectives. First, individual consumer choice, secondly, corporate responsibility and finally, government policy. We have touched upon government policy in terms of taxing plastic bags and banning single use plastic items, which is great. The cynic in me will always argue that it’s an advertising tool to say “look I’m doing something, I care about the environment too”, as a way of winning support. Regardless, at least something is being done.

We need more regulation on packaging to reduce the waste produced. The European Commission produced a strategy last year, prioritising a circular economy for plastics. This would limit the amount of new plastic being produced and the amount of plastic that is not recycled. In this way we keep working with the plastic we have, while reducing the environmental impact. We need regulation controlling plastic as most consumers will choose the cheapest product out of necessity and that is not always a loose vegetable. We need to ensure that this problem is tackled by all supermarkets for all consumers and that in general only comes from government regulation.

Next, we can think about the idea of consumer choice. Being aware of your choices and going shopping with the mentality of “I want to buy more loose vegetables as opposed to packaged vegetables”, is a great start. It is a choice you can make, not only in terms of reducing packaging, but also food waste. If you are buying what you need rather than buying a pre-portioned package, then you are more likely to use everything, reducing food waste.

We cannot always wait for governments and businesses to make these changes, so we need to act on an individual basis. We can choose to buy loose, for example, which is a real way to cut down on plastic. Adopting plastic challenges is another good introduction to reducing plastic. Even if you only do it for a week and even if you fail, being more aware of your choices will make a difference. Having that challenge in the back of your mind makes you more aware.

The next time you are in a supermarket, think, is there a better option, can I afford the better option and if you can, go for it. Can you go somewhere to refill containers, put in research, find these places, because they are out there and consumer choice matters to them. When you support businesses following good practice they get more money, they can expand, people see that it is a good idea and this leads to companies like Waitrose adopting the concept. This would not have happened without individuals making good choices and creating a demand. Share as much as you can about these good ideas, whether it is on social media or in person, you can tell people about it and you can spread the word that way.

That’s what consumer choice is, as an individual it is very hard to make a difference to businesses. Sure, you can stop buying something, but it doesn’t always send a clear message. When you start spreading the word, when you start telling people and more people are making good choices, that’s when you see a difference. Companies respond to that, whether you like it or not, companies respond.

Then, the government regulation can add to that as well, making sure all companies are working to the same standard, creating widespread change.

I hope that you can take this information forward and I challenge you all to attempt a week off plastic.

Give it a go, be more aware.

If you need to cheat then so be it, the point isn’t to make it impossible so you are put off by the idea, but to see how it can become compatible in your lives. Maybe there’s a switch which is very easy that you had never considered or maybe there’s something a bit harder that will need more planning, but it is all about reducing consumption.

Make the changes you can and collectively we can make a big difference.

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