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Biology, chemistry, Sustainability, Uncategorized

What does the label actually mean?

Anyone else confused by the stamps on different types of plastics? You know the ones that look like a recycling symbol with a number inside? What about the idea that a plastic is biodegradable but only under certain conditions? Or perhaps which ones are going to breakdown into microplastics? I work into sustainability and about as far as I’ve gotten in my understanding is “it probably it can’t be recycled here.”

Right now, the consumer is responsible for knowing all the symbols, the local requirements and restrictions, and doing the research if you want to know anything more like what additives are in each plastic item. It’s a lot of work, so it often doesn’t happen. Which is exactly what Burrows et al (2022) want to change. Plastic pollution is, we are realizing, a wicked problem. It is complex, there is no straight forward solution. It is going to take not just global cooperation but also interdisciplinary efforts. Plastic is part of everything from health care to transportation. Plastic is relatively cheap potentially reducing the access point and contributing to equity. But it isn’t environmental and things like additives can also make it unhealthy. Ever wonder how many plastic water bottles with BPA are sitting in the local landfill?

One way to make the plastic problem a little easier would be through labelling. I use the FSC logo when I’m buying wood and paper products to help me know a little more about the sustainability of that product. So if plastics could be labelled with a global system but local application it could help all of us make more sustainable choices. To that end, Burrows et al (2022) propose that a plastic labelling system needs three things. First, it needs a sustainability scale so that consumers can understand both the environmental and health implications of different products. Second, it needs region specific disposal instructions. “In Edmonton this product should be disposed of by X.” And third, we should get an ingredients list. What additives are there for example?

This sounds great but I wonder if it becomes too much info for current Western culture? Can all that info be delivered in something that takes only moments to process mentally? I want people to make choices that will better the planet and ourselves. And I believe that many people will. The way of life for so many Indigenous Peoples is so much more of an equal or even subservient relationship with nature. This brings me hope that destruction is not a given. But, can I fight the system I’m in? If I have to spend all my time earning money so that I can buy plastic things (including things like food in plastic packaging) I’ll never have time to follow through with the label no matter how much useful information it contains.

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About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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