This “tin” is the very same one that I can remember climbing on top of kitchen cupboards to ‘raid’ as a child. It’s played host to countless Hobnobs, ginger nuts, chocolate digestives and most recently, my 34th birthday cake. I can honestly say I can’t remember having another biscuit tin in my life. It’s a survivor…
Perhaps most amazingly, is that despite being in almost constant use for over 30 years, it still functions perfectly.
The reason for this is almost entirely down to the material it is made from, arguably one of humanity’s greatest inventions – plastic. Plastic is a designer’s dream, it can be engineered to have almost limitless properties, it’s flexible, lightweight, waterproof, colourful, and mouldable into almost any shape. From the national grid to teabags, the modern world as we know it would not exist without it – what else is as cheap, durable and impervious to almost anything the natural world can throw at it. You could say that it is the ideal material for long lifetime re-usable products – just look at my biscuit tin!
Now, take a walk down any street in the UK and you are likely to see at least one piece of plastic waste. In 2019, the world manufactured 359 million tonnes of it, the equivalent weight of 60 Pyramids of Giza, and it is estimated that on average, each EU citizen generates 31kg of plastic waste per year. Conversely, its brilliant durability also means that it persists for a very long time in the environment.
That plastic bottle in the hedge is likely to hang around for the next 450 years or so, and there is an increasing bank of scientific evidence documenting the impact that plastic waste is having on the world we live in. Notably, many forms of marine life, including cetaceans, turtles and sea birds are known to ingest plastics, leading to increased mortality. For example, a sperm whale found dead on the Isle of Harris in 2019 was found to have a 100kg plastic litter ball in its stomach. And interestingly, a 2020 study by Arizona State University analysing human organs found traces of plastics in 100% of samples.
What we don’t want to see is the unintended consequence of moving back to single use metal biscuit tins. What we need is a better choice of material. Culturally, we need to become more aware about the material choices we make and how we can all use resources in a more efficient and responsible way.
Plastic is a fantastic material which undoubtedly has its place in this world, however, we need to ensure use in the most efficient way to minimise the environmental impacts associated with use and eventual disposal. More importantly, like my biscuit tin, by re-using the resources we have, we simultaneously reduce the environmental impacts associated with the manufacture of raw materials and the disposal of waste.
Ensuring the infrastructure is in place to close the loop on material recycling and circularity is critical. In fact, re-use is the second most preferable step in the waste hierarchy. The waste hierarchy is a tool used to evaluate and prioritise how we deal with the use of resources, ranging from methods such as prevention (that is, not using a material in the first place) as the most favourable option, down to disposal to landfill.
In the current COVID-19 afflicted world, the proper implementation of the waste hierarchy has never been more important. Of course, disposal is sometimes the only option when considering single use PPE that medical staff rely upon in hospitals. However, for every item of PPE, there will be countless things in all our lives which we can all do to move up the waste hierarchy and use resources more efficiently, and most importantly, sustainably.
So, how long have you had your biscuit tin?