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Not recycling can affect the environment

Experts in the recycling and waste management industries are in agreement – neglecting to recycle waste can have serious implications for the environment. They are calling for consumers to expand their knowledge about the environmental benefits of recycling.

ITB Flexible Packaging Solutions Sales director, Michelene Locke, states that it is very important for consumers to understand why recycling is so pivotal to preventing plastic from entering the environment, as well as the oceans.

“Our behaviour relating to plastic needs to change – it is not that plastic is necessarily inherently bad. In some instances, plastic takes the least toll on the environment, it just needs to be recycled,” says Locke.

Recycling plastic supports a circular economy

Locke says that plastic underpins the economic principle of a circular economy, in which materials and products are kept in use in order to build social, natural and economic capital. However, this is only the case if plastic is recycled. 

“Rather than only using plastic once and then throwing it away, by recycling plastic consumers can actively help to keep such material out of our oceans and landfills,” says Locke. She also points out that plastic products that are only used once (single-use products) can take hundreds of years to decompose, should they not be recycled. “Plastics can contribute hugely towards a circular economy, aiding in achieving a more sustainable and resource-efficient future,” Locke adds.

While plastic-free bags, like compostable or biodegradable bags, are being explored as alternatives to plastic and are being used by certain retailers already, research is showing that doing so may, in reality, be at a higher cost to the environment than continuing to use plastic bags. 

A report compiled by renowned research firm, TruCost, for the American Chemistry Council in 2016 estimated that replacing plastic in consumer products and packaging with alternatives that have the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion (~R2.1-billion to R7.9-billion).

Consider the entire environmental footprint

Locke says that consumers must educate themselves with facts as well-meaning acts to preserve the environment could be counter-productive. This includes ignoring a product’s entire environmental footprint just because there is a perception that it is better for the environment.

For example, a cucumber wrapped in 1.5 grams of plastic will last for 14 days, compared to one without wrapping, which will only stay fresh for three days. The cost of reproducing a cucumber to replace the one that has gone bad is much higher than the cost of producing 1.5 grams of plastic if the plastic in question is recycled.

Sustainable material management, which examines the life cycle of packaging and the use of natural resources, suggests there’s a much higher cost to the environment when using plastic-free alternatives, as opposed to using plastic responsibly by means of recycling. Locke says it is about understanding the choices we make. To make a true environmental impact, we must behave responsibly and make informed choices. 

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Written by Joshua Oates

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