“I remember walking to the farmer’s market with my grandfather as a very young child, he would always carry a cloth carrier bag on the shoulder,” says Malhotra. “Somehow, my parents lost the habit, and… the greengrocer now wraps greens individually before storing them in my carrier bag. I can’t help but wonder where it went wrong.”
Those banana leaf containers might be making a comeback. One Indian 20-year-old used this centuries-old tradition as inspiration to develop a technique to prevent leaves from degrading for up to three years. After treating the leaves with UV and shaping them into plates and cups, they can be used and reused as plastic replacements. This take on a traditional practice promotes a local sustainable solution and cultural heritage.
Assessing the life cycle of a material is complex. For instance, producing glass is very energy intensive, but if it is well kept it can be cleaned and reused perhaps indefinitely.
Linda Gaines, an environmental scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in the US, and her late colleague Max Mintz found that although you can recycle glass indefinitely through melting, this process does not save a significant amount of energy compared with primary glass production – at best it saves 13% of the energy. Glass is more eco-friendly than plastic only if it is reused and in many cases (due to the lack of glass collecting networks), plastic might be more sustainable.
“In emerging economies the cost of [producing] beverages is cheaper than in the industrialised world,” Nathan Dufour from Zero Waste Europe, an NGO that is trying to find alternatives to incinerators, explains. “As a result, the cost of packaging represents a higher proportion of the total price. This explains why it makes more economic sense to keep refillable packaging, be it in glass or plastic, in countries in the global South,” he says.
“So, big consumer brands have transitioned away from refillables to single-use packaging faster in the global North than in the South; it simply made more economic sense,” he says.
Dufour suggests that if companies are shown economically interesting ways of being sustainable they will go for the more sustainable option without a second thought. Consumers can contribute to tipping the balance to the more sustainable side.
Plastic is a victim of its own success: cheap, light and flexible. It’s so cheap that many of use don’t question using it once and throwing it away. It’s so useful that we find it everywhere. While plastic waste is a pressing problem, its properties mean that it still has an important part to play, particularly in transporting food.
So before we give up on plastic, perhaps we should think about how to use, and reuse, it better.