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Zero hour: Why consumers need to do their bit in the war on plastic
Belgium may boast one of Europe’s best plastic recycling rates, but it’s not immune to the swathes of plastic junk swilling around our seas, killing wildlife and entering the food chain. Nor is it without blame.
The country’s beaches contain a whopping 100 kilograms per kilometre of trash, about 95% of which is plastic. Roughly half comes from the fishing industry, mainly nets; the other half mostly from tourists and residents – drink cartons, straws, cigarette butts and so on. Its direct impact is clear to anyone who has not been hiding under a rock in recent years.
But there’s also the indirect impact that plastic production – basically a by-product of the oil industry, one of the world’s largest contributors to greenhouse gases – has on climate change.
Retailers say they are doing what they can to meet the escalating demand of consumers for less plastic waste, but campaigners say it’s not enough. So it’s over to consumers to be yet more demanding if we are to solve this problem. “In the current situation where not a lot is being done, it really comes down to the people to refuse plastic bags and all the other singleuse plastic,” says Jeroen Verhoeven, campaigner at Greenpeace Belgium. “You really have to look for other ways of doing things.”
'The recycling myth is not getting us out of trouble'
Belgium recycles 80% of its used plastic. According to Verhoeven, this gives us a false sense of security. “New PET bottles contain on average only about 10% of recycled plastic,” he says. “So the recycling myth is not getting us out of trouble, because there are continuously and massively new plastic PET bottles being produced.” While Belgium pats itself on the back for its recycling rate, it is also ignoring the incontrovertible waste management pyramid which puts refuse/reduce at its pinnacle. “It’s useful to remember the five Res and their priority: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle,” says Verhoeven.
So far, for example, Brussels and Wallonia have bans on single-use plastic bags, but Flanders does not. While industrial giants talk the talk about generating reusable packaging, Verhoeven points to the local opposition to a proposed deposit scheme for PET packaging. Under the scheme, consumers would pay a deposit on such packaged items and return them to the store. Putting a value on these would not only encourage people to return them for recycling but would also put the onus on industry.
Back to consumers, his advice is to at least cut out all single-use plastics – and their substitutes, so that we don’t shift the problem from plastic waste to, say, deforestation for paper drinking straws. But cutting out plastic is not without its challenges. While supermarkets are responding to heightened consumer awareness – Carrefour targets zero plastic for its own brands by 2025 – Belgium is way behind the Netherlands, which boasts the world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle.
'We need a structural solution'
Thomas Naessens and his partner, Amélie Noël, who live in Jette, have embarked on a journey of sustainable food. One of their targets for 2019 is to get as close as possible to zero waste, so part of their mission is to eliminate plastic rubbish. Their lifestyle poses many questions: “Where to buy? How to organise our time so that we don’t lose too much time in this new approach? How to avoid going too fast and putting too much pressure on ourselves?” says Naessens.
His advice to anyone wanting to adopt a more ecological approach to consumption is to proceed in phases. “For example, first drinks, then fruit and vegetables and finally the bulk shopping. Once a step is automated, it’s easier to move on to the next one and so on.”
Undoubtedly, for real change to occur, regulators and industry will have to step up to solve the problem, says Verhoeven. “It’s a structural problem and we need a structural solution.” In the meantime, a strong message from consumers is starting to see results. A video shared on social media lamenting the layers of plastic packaging on a toy given away by supermarket giant Delhaize went viral. The company had no choice but to respond, taking out a fullpage newspaper ad in which they acknowledged and apologised for their mistake.
“We won’t achieve any real change without a change in mindset,” says Verhoeven. “We need to refuse these throwaway things otherwise we will just come up with other versions of the same problem.”
- Placed end to end, the drinking straws thrown away in Europe each year could go round the world 133 times (National Geographic)
- In every 100m of river, about 40 discarded drink packages can be found (Planet Zee)
- By 2025, there will be about 250 million tonnes of plastic waste in the sea (Zero Waste Rivers)
- Globally, there are about one million plastic drink bottles sold every minute, making them the chief source of plastic waste (Euromonitor)
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Spring 2019. Photo: Getty Images/Seb-ra