Friday, August 03, 2012

Living in a Plastic Age

Our over-flowing recycling sack
Plastics have been the focus of a lot of my green living reading this week. It started out with discovering My Plastic Free Life – Beth was inspired to see if she could live without buying/consuming any plastics for a year and has been living more or less plastic free ever since.

After reading I was alternately inspired and dismayed all over again at the sheer amounts of plastic in our everyday life. However green we try to be, however much we recycle, there is still  plastic making its way into landfills, or worse into our oceans.

So shopping was accompanied by a guilt trip. Could the fact that we still buy black bin bags, be offset against the choice of bags made of 100% recycled plastic? How to acquire pasta or rice without those non-recyclable crinkly plastic bags? Our local town doesn’t offer the convenient bulk buying stores that seem to be a feature of some Canadian and US cities (going by the blogs I’ve been reading) where you can fill up your own re-used glass containers.  And horrors when the fresh bunches of carrots that used to be just tied up with string have now been promoted to a plastic sleeve... (we're still waiting for several rows of carrots to produce in the veggie garden and some dear, cuddly creature is nibbling the tops).

Fast forward to yesterday, when a lovely prize I’d won in the Tangled Tree Treasures competition finally arrived. They are a new range of wines from the Van Loveren estate near Robertson, promoting green living, bio-diversity and ethical choices. The box contained sample bottles of the five wines in their range, named enticingly and with pretty labels... and bottled in plastic?!

A quick look at their site and at a few other internet forums showed an alternative perspective on green packaging thinking: PET plastic can actually have a much lighter carbon footprint than glass. I found several arguments both for and against this view. The most balanced one was an opinion piece stating both pros and cons and didn’t get all hot under the collar about it - this I think is the one I’ll go with for now.

Basically the view is this:

  • PET uses a whole lot less resources and energy to produce than glass.
  • PET is much lighter than glass and takes up less space, therefore it uses less fuel to ship.
  • PET is much sturdier, therefore less breakage and less wastage.
  • PET can now be recycled over and over again without losing its integrity, just as glass can.
  • PET doesn’t have several of the ooh nasties such as BPA and phthalates that make a lot of plastics a bad choice for food products.

I resisted this a little to start with. I like glass – it feels better than plastic, worthier, greener, more real. Plastics are the big baddies of the eco-system, cluttering up our oceans and killing our marine life.

Common sense eventually makes me re-consider and admit that there is room for wines bottled in plastic, especially if they are being exported around the world, and as long as the bottles will eventually be recycled.

Glass is still going to be the best option: if it can be re-used multiple times before being recycled; if the product is distributed close to where it originates, so not too much transport is involved. Think jars of yoghurt from your local dairy that can be returned again and again.

I guess the crux of the matter lies in responsible recycling. If we could guarantee that all those plastic bottle would make it into a recycling program and be turned back into bottles again indefinitely, it wouldn’t be so bad. And if glass could be re-used indefinitely that would also be a winning solution. So in the end it comes down to our behaviour... and what a challenge that is.

Please feel free to shout at me politely tell me I’m mistaken in the comments, if you have a better understanding of this complex subject. I’m off to finish that first delicious bottle of Tangled Tree Spicy Shiraz (I’ll write more about the wines themselves once I’ve savoured all five of them), before tossing the plastic bottle in the recycling bin.

I’ll leave you with Beth’s in depth research into Pepsi’s much touted PET drinks bottle, released last year, made from plant based plastic.


  1. I also feel the burden of plastic. In Germany, we can recycle our plastic drinking bottles - there's a recycling hub in every supermarket which then spits out credit. However, the hubs don't deal with all the other kinds of plastic we purchase wrapped around products.

  2. Sounds like a good scheme, Charlotte. Can you recycle other plastics elsewhere in Germany?

    Our municipal dump will take all our unsorted recycling, to sort adn sell on, and they take a few sorts of plastic, drinks bottles, soft plastic bags and wrap etc but not yoghurt pots and crinkly pasta bags.

    I'm sure an awful lot more South Africans would be persuaded to recycle plastic bottles if they got a credit for doing so.

  3. Interesting to compare glass and PET footprints. It's not all as black and white as some make it out to be. We definitely have too much plastic in out lives. Packaging seems to be the worst culprit.

  4. I know I sound defeatist, but honestly, the only thing that will really "save the planet" is if all the human beings leave. Since we're not going to do that, we should just concentrate on being as kind to each other as we can.

    The earth was not made by us, it will not be destroyed by us... as a matter of fact, nature tends to rejuvenate and destroy itself via floods, earthquakes, and the rest. When the big asteroid hits, it really won't mean a hill of beans whether we used plastic or glass bottles.

    I say live and be happy!

  5. @Meredith - packaging is our biggest plastic problem - everything except flour comes in plastic it seems.

    I totally agree on being kind, Marcheline, and living happy.
    On the off-chance that that asteroid misses and I make it to eighty, I do think it makes sense to do as much as we can to leave a small piece of the planet tidy. Who knows, if re-incarnation turns out to be on the agenda we might have to live on it all over again!!

  6. Kit - you are right, regarding the possibility of reincarnation.

    Another point is, shouldn't it be the manufacturer's responsibility to choose proper containers? I mean, just because you and I may choose not to buy plastic, all those manufacturers are still chugging away putting things in plastic... so it doesn't really stop plastic from getting out there into the system, does it?

    Plastic won't be gone until people stop making it. Once it's made, it's in the system forever, whether or not you and I buy it. Yes, if we could get every person in the world to refuse to buy products in plastic, then that might make a difference. But that will never happen.

    I think if governments really gave a hoot about ecology, they'd outlaw the use of harmful products. But they never will, because everything revolves around money. As long as it's cheaper to produce products in plastic containers, manufacturers will keep doing it.

    Which brings me back to my original thought... eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

  7. I was also a little taken aback by Van Loveren's decision - like you, I prefer glass and have always considered it a greener option. But as you say, nothing is as black and white as it first seems, especially when you start to look at things like shipping fuel consumption, less weight etc etc. My issue is does ever municipality in South Africa provide opportunity for easy recycling of PET? Because if it is not as easy to recycle as glass, people simply won't do it and it will all end up in landfill, no matter how many times in theory it can be recycled.

    BTW I LOVED that Tangled Tree Shiraz at the Indaba :)


Thanks for your comments - I appreciate every one!