Britain’s plastic problem: remember your neighbourhood Tesco while striking on March 15th

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As we strike on March 15th against climate change, we need to remember that Britain has a plastic problem, fueled by the capitalist mass-production of chain stores like Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Cucumbers and onions, which come wrapped in their own natural peels, are covered in cling film or mesh bags. The idea is that the wrapping allows the food to last longer, transport easily and remain hygienic. Besides, as defenders argue, these bags can always be recycled easily.

None of this is true.

How much packaging is needed in chain stores?

To begin with, it is not plastic that expressly allows food to last longer—it is refrigeration. In the case of chain stores like Tesco and Sainsburys, where produce is stocked in shelves with controlled temperatures, plastic bags become unnecessary.

As for transportation, it is easier to pack a bulk of vegetables in large carriers, rather than wrapping individual fruits and vegetables, which effectively serves no purpose in protecting vegetables while they are on the road.

The only seemingly effective use of plastic to cover hardy vegetables like cucumbers and potatoes is that it seems to keep them more “hygienic”, in that it prevents the vegetables being touched as they exchange hands. Never mind that the standard practice of properly washing and cleaning vegetables significantly reduces the chances of germs entering your system—assuming you eat vegetable peels.

Recycling, valorised though it is, needs to stop being considered a panacea.

Before a stage of recycling even emerges, we need to ask ourselves whether that much plastic even is necessary—whether it can be reduced; and if not; whether it can be of use somewhere else—be reused.

“Staggering and unnecessary”

The amount of packaging available on store shelves is staggering and unnecessary. In 2018, The Guardian found that supermarkets in the UK produced nearly 800,000 tonnes of plastic every year.

In the investigation, eight supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Aldi and Waitrose, refused to admit their plastic production and failed to set up plastic-free practices.

The research found that these supermarkets keep their plastic production and the amount they pay toward recycling practices a secret, meaning that they uninhibitedly produce plastic.

On the back of this study, some supermarkets went ahead and signed the UK Plastic Pact, which aims to make nearly all the packaging available in supermarkets fully recyclable by 2025.

Recycling is never as idealistic as it sounds

Britain’s plastic problem is both a postcolonial and capitalist problem. Until 2018, the UK exported two-thirds of its plastic waste to China, which was subsequently deemed to have the largest amount of plastic waste by the UN. After a ban by the Chinese government preventing this, instead of reducing production, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that tonnes of plastic waste were sent to landfills in countries like Myanmar and Turkey instead, or getting dumped into the ocean.

Not all the exported waste is then recycled. Myanmar, for example, has received more plastic than it can handle, which means some of it is simply incinerated instead of being properly disposed.

In essence, the UK does not have a comprehensive system for recycling the sheer amount of waste it produces— it has managed thus far simply by dumping its waste on other shores.

No incentive for supermarkets

Plus, it isn’t too difficult to imagine why supermarkets are averse to reducing the plastic they use. Thanks to packaging, they can raise the prices of the items. Packets of shelled peas are a great example of this. Under the guise of shelling peas and selling them in packets, supermarkets charge more for fewer bunches of peas, as compared to a greengrocer selling whole peas.

It is not as though more sustainable practices cannot exist, but with the capitalist profiteering motive of chain stores, none of these options are truly considered.

One of the easiest ways of combating plastic pollution is selling loose vegetables and paying by weight or number, instead of scanning them using barcodes. Not only does this reduce the chances of ‘ugly vegetables’ being sifted and discarded from the packaging, this also can curb supermarkets from turning to automated self-checkout systems, which reduces jobs.

One of the greatest myths that exists is that by small, planned practices like recycling, at an individual level, global pollution can be reduced.

In truth, the biggest environmental offenders are massive corporations that get away with indiscrete plastic production and dumping. By validating their plastic production under the guise of “better hygiene” and the possibility of guilt-free recycling, they continue using up valuable resources and damaging our shores.

As we strike for climate change on March 15th, remember who we have to call out, who we have to strike against.

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