The first thing you notice when you enter Natural Weigh, Chloe and Rob Masefield’s small shop in the Welsh town of Crickhowell, is the enticing smell of food. Then you see that people have brought their own containers and bottles and are filling them with rice, pasta, seeds, oils and beauty supplies. They then pay for their products by weight.
“Zero-waste” or plastic-free shops, which sell nothing wrapped in plastic, are springing up worldwide, a groundswell of consumer protest over both the sheer wastefulness of resources in modern packaging and the impact that the world’s most ubiquitous material is having on wildlife and the environment. Many of the shopkeepers report a growing enthusiasm among their customers for a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle.
The Masefield’s shop is one of the nearly 60 plastic-free shops in the United Kingdom known to have opened in the last 18 months. “It has been a great success,” says Chloe. “Trade is growing all the time. We both worked for environmental organizations and were shocked at the amount of plastic we saw everywhere. We would pick up pieces on our walks and see some were 15 years old. We were just so frustrated that we could not buy anything without it coming covered in plastic.”
Plastic-free aisles are becoming common in supermarkets across Europe, and shops selling groceries without packaging have opened in the United States, Canada, Australia and mainland China. In Berlin, Germany, a plastic-free supermarket now sells over 600 products.
Spurred by celebrities and popular TV programs like “Blue Planet 2” showing marine wildlife choked by plastic and by reports of plastic micro-particles entering the human body, powerful international campaigning groups and foundations like Greenpeace, WWF, Oceana and Friends of the Earth are waging a war against plastic. Newer groups like 5Gyres and the Plastic Pollution Coalition are joining them.
Together they highlight the exponential growth in the use of plastic in the last 30 years and urge people to refuse single-use plastic. World production of plastic, they point out, has tripled from around 100 million metric tons in 1989 to over 335 million metric tons today; one study found 91 percent of all plastic made is not recycled. Instead, most of it goes to landfill sites, or is thrown away or burned. By some counts, plastic packaging now accounts for about half of the plastic waste in the world.
Until consumers started to campaign loudly, food, drink and other heavy plastic-using businesses took little responsibility for single-use plastic waste, expecting urban collection services and a small recycling market to clean up the litter and dispose of their products.
Environmental advocates are now taking the battle to those companies who flood cities with billions of coffee cups that cannot be recycled and the 5 trillion plastic bags a year that are designed to be used only once.
Ten years ago, it was rare to see individual fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic. Today raw produce and even wood, metal goods and building materials invariably come wrapped in a plastic film.The companies respond that plastic protects goods from damage and extends the life of food.
Public backlash has shaken global corporations, and now many of them have pledged to change their ways. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, over 250 food, drink and other consumer multinationals ― including Coke, Danone, Mars, L’Oreal, PepsiCo and Unilever ― have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. The companies vowed to tackle plastic pollution. Some have promised to eliminate all “un-necessary” packaging, others have pledged to ensure theirs is 100 percent recyclable.
But although many supermarkets have promised to eradicate un-recycleable ketchup bottles, yogurt cups, and bags of mixed fruit and vegetables, the measures are often vague and voluntary, and many will not be enacted for several years, say consumer activists.
Not only are companies delaying change, they often confuse consumers by saying their plastic is “recyclable,” “bio-degradeable” or “compostable,” all of which sound good but in practical terms may be of little use, says Greenpeace U.K. campaigner Louise Edge.
“The individual commitments being made by these companies just don’t go far enough,” Edge says. “Making packaging more recyclable is a step forward, but making more recyclable packaging isn’t. The problem is that leading brands are already producing more plastic waste than our recycling systems can cope with. Just because something is recyclable, it doesn’t mean it will actually be recycled.”
Governments, too, have recognized consumer concern and the growing problems caused by plastic, including floods from blocked drains and wildlife casualties. According to a U.N. study on single-use plastics, 127 out of 192 countries (66 percent) have now adopted some legislation to regulate the manufacture, sale, use and disposal of single-use plastics.
Of these, says the UNEP, 83 have banned shops handing out free plastic bags, and 61 have gone further by banning their manufacture and import. A further 51 countries have now adopted laws to set recycling targets for plastic bags, and 27 countries have enacted legislation banning specific products like cups, plates, packaging or straws.
But only eight, including Canada, France, Italy, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S., have laws or regulations to ban plastic microbeads, which are widely used in cosmetics and personal care products like soap and toothpastes. Ireland intends to pass a law in 2019, and some countries will not enforce their bans until 2020.
“Countries must seriously consider alternatives to plastics that are causing at least $8 billion in damages per year,” says Celine Salcedo-La Viña a research associate with the World Resources Institute, one of the lead authors of the U.N. report.
China, for many years the dumping ground of countries with mountains of plastic to dispose of, banned imports of 24 varieties of solid waste last year, including most plastics. The result has been more plastic waste exported to poorer countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia, and far more going to incinerator factories in Europe, which contribute to greenhouse gases and are potentially detrimental for the health of people living nearby.
But bans and legislation have been shown to not always work. Plastic use is increasing exponentially in many developing countries that have limited facilities to enforce laws or to recycle it. Kenya, banned plastic bags in 2017 and introduced draconian fines but the bags are still in wide use, mostly smuggled across borders.
In Bangladesh, where a plastic bag ban was implemented after authorities found the bags were causing floods by choking urban drainage systems, plastic waste is only partly controlled. According to the country’s plastic manufacturers’ association, 3,000 plastic goods-making companies generate over 50,000 tons of waste a year, of which less than 40 percent is recycled.
Where governments have failed to enact change, cities and states have stepped in. Austin, Texas, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are among many U.S. cities with bans on single-use bags. Others, like Boulder, New York, and Washington, D.C., have introduced fees.
California is the only state to have banned single-use plastic bags at large retail stores, and Hawaii has a de facto statewide ban. Others, including Delaware, New York and Rhode Island require recycling efforts at retail stores.
But, says Jennie Romer, lawyer and founder of PlasticBagLaws.org, the American plastics industry is fighting proposed new laws, paying lobbyists “millions of dollars” and filing lawsuits to stop new laws being introduced.
“The movement [against single-use plastic bags] is getting stronger every day,” Romer says. “There’s a lot of action at grassroots and local levels. People see this as something that can be done by individuals to address a global issue.”
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the U.S. plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry, did not respond to requests for an interview, but on its website, it claims that the conventional plastic bag is the packaging with the least environmental impact.
“Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, and recycling is easy and makes a real difference,” it says. “Bans and taxes have a negative impact on working families and seniors on fixed incomes, but they don’t help the environment in any meaningful way ― in fact they can cause bigger problems.”
Back in Europe, the battle against the overuse of plastic is being waged on the streets. “I cannot restock my plastic-free shop fast enough. It’s going better than we could have expected,” says Sophie Rae, who raised £33,000 ($42,000) via crowdfunding in 12 days and opened her Ripple Living shop in Cardiff, U.K., in November.
“We are now serving 200 customers a day. People who come say they want to shop consciously. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.