As an environmentally conscious citizen, I am constantly looking at how much volume is taken up by plastics when sorting household waste. Almost invisibly, this material is taken home with the groceries in the form of packaging of all kinds. The fraction of plastic quickly takes up so much space that I have to drive back to the recycling park in no time at all, where press containers ensure that the large volume does not stand out and its transport is not too 'airy'.
The 'Plastic-free May' initiative is therefore self-evident to raise awareness among citizens and businesses. Freely translated to the principles of the circular economy, avoiding plastic means that we would be using more and better recyclable alternatives.
The use of plastic is massive and ubiquitous. In Flanders, plastic makes up a significant part of 468.5 kg of household waste per inhabitant (1in 2018). Only 20 to 25 percent of plastic waste in Belgium is recycled. In many municipalities, soft plastic still goes with residual waste. Plastics account for the largest share of the group of packaging materials that are incinerated to generate energy.
We know all too well the islands of plastic in the oceans and the occurrence of plastics in fish and birds. We remember that China banned mass imports in 2019, with the result that the plastic accumulates or is exported to another location. More recently, scientists reported the presence of 1.9 million minuscule plastic particles in a thin layer on one square metre of seabed. Cleantech solutions are emerging. An excellent opportunity to put the principles of the circular economy into practice.
3D printing of objects with plastic recyclate is equally possible, as well as the use of alternative materials and other processes that produce new products such as street and garden furniture. It is not for nothing that food packaging materials are under pressure. What is the primary requirement for packaging materials these days? On the one hand, increasingly complex materials (barrier, heat resistant, composites,...) are used to package food products with high quality (taste, ingredients, colour). On the other hand, plastic packaging has to be simplified in order to allow it to be processed in the recycling stream.
The 'Mei Plasticvrij' initiative ensures that consumers' requirements are increasingly well accepted. On the other hand, the corona virus again makes consumers opt more for pre-packed food. An increase in the use of plastic packaging material is the inevitable consequence. When the fear of contamination fades away, we will hopefully return more than ever to alternatives such as biodegradable or reusable packaging materials or other natural materials such as paper and cardboard.
In this way, the corona crisis feeds the discussion about the use of packaging and the questionable role of plastic in this. With less plastic we also get there: plastic ear sticks and carrier bags are no longer allowed by law. But nuance is needed. A society completely without plastic means that we are also throwing overboard the advantages of plastic and plastics, and with them sometimes vital applications. That would be a shame. At a certain point, low in plastic is sufficiently plastic-free...