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War on plastic: Is it time to bring back the term ‘litterbug’?

Asks Tom Smith, sales director at Advanced Dynamics.

What happened to the term, ‘litterbug’?

For context, it was a phrase that was bandied about on the school playgrounds during the 1990s – an unwanted tag for children who were caught littering. It was a jibe and one, speaking from experience, that you didn’t want to be on the end of.

Being labelled a litterbug was just one small part of it, though. Schools imposed harsh punishments not just for littering, but for incorrectly recycling plastic. It was forbidden. It was drilled into children from a young age. Because of that, recycling was ingrained in my mind into teenage and adulthood.

So, what happened? Why did those strict measures and that education loosen?

Why did we lose the term?

In the world we live in, where there is a constant war against plastic and the packaging industry, among other sectors, is tarred for the use of it, is it time to bring it back and double down on the education of recyclability once again?

The answer is yes. But there is far more to it than that.

Is it time to abandon the world’s expensive search for a viable alternative to plastic and, instead, put efforts into thorough education?

Ultimately, changing mindsets requires a funnel approach and starts with those guys at the very top – the decision makers, if you will. When it comes to recycling and plastic, that is no different.

In recent years, plastic has been viewed as a public and environmental enemy. A report in Huffington Post showed that, as of last year, humans had made an estimated 9.1 billion tonnes of plastic since 1950. That roughly equates to 3.1 billion cars. Another damning statistic showed that 79% of that ended in landfill or littered in the environment and that only a mere 9% has been recycled. I will talk more about that later.

And therefore what I’m about to say next will be hard for some to accept… plastic is one of the best inventions man has ever made.

It is widely used for holding everything. No one can argue that what it is used for is nothing but useful and when you look at the purpose it serves and that is going to be incredibly difficult to ever find a replacement for.

Sticking specifically with the UK, billions of pounds of the country’s money, as well as huge amounts of resources are spent trying to find an alternative. The issue in doing so is the cost, not just in pounds and pence, but in time, too. Despite all of that, we are yet to have a truly viable alternative.

Products like potato starch plastics and bamboo have been explored, but even processing those two options in their raw form and turning them into a plastic alternative costs a fortune. It is also not sustainable and, equally, it has a negative impact on the environment than the process of producing plastic – purely because of how good we are at it around the world.

Plastic is a harmful product… when it isn’t discarded properly.

Recycling needs to be part of our culture, but investment is needed for tried initiatives and dedicated infrastructure.

For years, Germany and Sweden have sat on pedestals as world leaders in recycling initiatives.

It is brewed into their culture, boosted with proper funding to ensure a range of recycling bins are located in dense areas, and it is supported by fantastic initiatives that engage the respective populations.

However, like here in the UK, the problem is what happens to the recycling once we have done ‘our bit’? In our own homes, many of us are committed to the recycling cause but are also totally unaware of what actually happens to our recycling once the bi-weekly recycling truck empties our bins and slowly manoeuvres itself out of the street.

In 2019, The Guardian reported that Westminster Council sent a whopping 82% of all household waste – including that which was put in recycling bins – was sent for incineration in 2017/18.

Beyond that, there are also multiple reports of our waste and recycling being shipped off and dumped in third world countries or just ending up at the landfill. This is something even recycling heroes, Germany, are not totally exempt from.

Earlier in this piece, I spoke about education – not just specifically for kids, but for all of us – but there is also a requirement to pump our resources, time, and effort into futureproof recycling schemes and methods in which we all know where our recycling is going and what is happening to it.

We can’t keep using crude resources, like oil, to keep mass producing plastic and then just discard it. It needs to be reused and if not, at the very least it needs to be properly recycled.

Wouldn’t we find the solution far quicker if our time and resources were going into that rather than pinning our hopes on trying to find an alternative?

The power of simple, clear, and concise

Ask yourself honestly, in the last week have you looked at a piece of packaging and tried to decide whether it can or cannot be recycled, or seen one of many logos and attempted to decipher what it meant?

Again, the answer is most likely.

Imagine a world, though, where you didn’t need to be told or look at a piece of packaging bought from a supermarket or via the growing e-commerce world to see whether it was recyclable.

That knowledge would cut the problem we face, not just in the UK but across the world, drastically.

For example, how many people know that on some products there is a printed triangle with a number on it? My guess is not too many. For context, that number – typically between one and five – alludes to what that piece of packaging is made from and determines whether the product is recyclable or not.

Using food as an example, just in the same way we print the ingredients that make up a product and just in the same way we print a nutritional label showing exactly what you are getting from that product, should we not also be providing clear and concise information on whether that piece of packaging is recyclable – in a way that everyone understands?

It is time to ditch terms like ‘widely recycled’ (what does that even mean by the way), remove the illogical number of logos that do nothing but cloud the message, and let’s get back to basics.

Surely it is time to bring in a simple system that everyone recognises, one where you can look at a piece of plastic and it is clear – as blue as a clear sky or as green as grass – that that product can or cannot be recycled.

Final thoughts

In my opinion, it would be impossible to live in this world without plastic. Trying to do so would affect nearly every single person on the planet if we just stopped using it.

There are multiple strands to this narrative, but it all starts with education and getting back to teaching children about littering and recycling, and providing clear messaging for what is and isn’t recyclable.

We are just a small voice in a huge vacuum here. What difference can we make alone? Not a lot. But by each small voice taking ownership of how they recycle, momentum and habits are built – just as the use of the word ‘litterbug’ was for me.

Tom Smith is sales director at Advanced Dynamics, one of the UK's leading businesses in filling and capping machinery.


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