It’s Plastic Free July, an event that despite being less linguistically attractive than, say, Dry July, Movember, Meatless Monday, or even Sugar-Free September is nonetheless important. Because we all know that packaging waste, single-use plastic in particular, is making a big disgusting mess of our planet.
Plastic is great stuff. It is durable, waterproof, resistant to bacteria, hygienic and can be formed into just about anything you can imagine. It is also fairly cheap. But some of those qualities constitute a double-edged sword.
Of course we all get told that we need to avoid single use plastic because of the environmental impacts. But telling us little people, us end users with precious little power to make any real change, that it is our responsibility to just not buy things with plastic on them, is really pointing the finger in the wrong direction.
Like a lot of things, this environmental responsibility and consumer guilt is disproportionately directed at women. Because we are the ones who get the fun jobs like grocery shopping, caring for small children, cooking, cleaning and looking after sick people. All of those things come with a side-order of plastic, which we are often powerless to avoid.
As someone attempting to build a small business producing and selling mainly consumable products, I have become acutely aware of ways in which packaging is forced upon us.
First of all we have labeling laws. While I am allowed to sell bars of soap unpackaged as long as I provide all the relevant details at point of sale, most consumables are required by law to be sold with a label.
My moisturisers, herbal balms, lip balms and bath minerals must all be packaged and labeled. The labels must include every ingredient name in full, the physical address where the product was packed, the minimum net weight, and the name of the product and manufacturer.
While I have managed to source compostable packaging for my lip balms, and even compostable plastic tubs for the bath minerals, I am left relying on recylable packaging for my lotions and balms. Aluminium tins for the balms, which are poured at a high temperature, and plastic tubs for the lotions which must be able to be sealed against moisture and other contaminants.
But even when zero-waste packaging options are available, unless you are buying in quantities to make it worth buying pre-printed containers, you still have to stick on a label. Pre-printed packaging is usually offered on minimum runs of 1000, and you need a different print for each variety, so for me the outlay for pre-printed lip balm tubes would be around $5000.
I have not been able to source any labels that are completely biodegradable. All the labels currently available have a plastic layer. Thus making it almost impossible for me to comply to labeling requirements without including a plastic component in my packaging. My current recommendation is that people using my products packed in compostable packaging remove the label before composting. It’s better than a whole plastic tube, but it’s not ideal.
Labeling is necessary to protect consumers and monitor supply chains, and there are a lot of food staples you just couldn’t buy without some way of containing them. Packaging is necessary in a lot of cases, but it is time to embrace new ways
Eco friendly packaging adds to the cost of producing each unit, which is usually passed on to the consumer. There are plenty of people out there willing to spend a bit extra on an item in eco friendly packaging, but it seems that there are few big companies who are willing to make these options available. Our purchasing options are still sadly limited, most of us aren’t in a position to produce our own food and other consumables, and many women are stretched to the limit trying to balance budgets and care for their families while working full time.
Do you go for the Australian rice in the plastic bag, or the imported rice in the cloth bag? Do you stop buying corn chips altogether? Is it even possible to find a laundry detergent that is not packed in plastic, full of irritants or detrimental to your washing machine? And when we can’t fulfill all of these criteria, how do we decide which considerations are most important?
It’s the bigger companies who need to step up and start giving us real options. Most of us pour a huge percentage of our available funds into the purchase of food and other consumables, it is a big-money sector. We can only do so much with what we have available. We can’t all have a milking goat in the back yard, but that shouldn’t mean the rest of us should have to deal with the guilt of bringing home a plastic carton of milk every couple of days.
We are seeing the dawn of a new age of environmental collective conscience. But the War on Waste cannot be won at a household level. Busy mums can’t be expected to make pasta from scratch to avoid buying it in a packet. There are better options out there, but big companies just aren’t feeling the need to use them just yet. They think we have more time to change how we do things. We don’t.