Plastics are an environmental danger that pollute the ocean and threaten marine life.
In fact, according to environmental nonprofit the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), we produced more plastics in the first 18 years of the 21st century that we did in the entire of the 20th century.
The world is, however, beginning to wake up to the damage that single-use plastics are causing — and individuals and businesses are starting to make changes to cut out unnecessary plastic.
Just one of these businesses is South African retailer Pick n Pay, which has introduced what it calls “nude zones” in an effort to limit the amount of plastic packaging used to sell fresh fruit and vegetables.
It means that the fruit and veg is packaging-free, and instead customers are being encouraged to bring their own sealable containers to take their shopping home.
The trial has currently been rolled out to 13 stores, but if successful it would likely be introduced to more stores across the country.
The stores where the scheme is currently being trialled are in Claremont, Gardens, Faerie Glen Hyper, Bedfordview, Benmore, Waterfront, Kenilworth, Pinelands, Hyper Durban North, Longbeach Mall, Glengarry, PnP on Nicol, and Constantia.
Packaging accounts for just over 40% of total plastic usage around the world, according to global anti-plastic nonprofit Plastic Oceans.
“Reducing plastic waste has obvious benefits, but we need to be careful not to increase food waste levels during the process,” explained retail executive Paula Disberry, quoted by Business Insider SA.
The “nude” produce includes a broad range of fruit and vegetable products — but to help keep plastic waste at a complete minimum the store is also doing something quite ingenious with lasers.
For hardier vegetables like sweet potatoes, gem squash, and butternut squash, information will be etched with laser barcodes into the vegetable’s skin itself rather than use a sticker.
“Even if a small label is used on a single product, the label backing is still plastic,” added Disberry. “The laser removes the top layer of skin on hardy vegetables and etches the Pick n Pay logo, supplier code, and sell-by date directly onto the individual product. This means zero plastic is used on these products.”
The impact of plastic pollution in South Africa has not yet been widely researched, however the environmental cost of plastic is great.
For instance, while a plastic bag has the “working life” of 15 minutes, according to Plastic Oceans, it takes 500 years for it to break down.
Many countries and cities globally have introduced bans on plastic packaging and products like plastic straws, stirrers, microbeads, cotton buds, and more.
And South Africa’s own Department of Environmental Affairs was reported in February to be considering a similar ban on some plastic products.
The department is reportedly currently in talks with various organisations about possibly phasing out plastic straws and microbeads.
“We are prioritising this. We have identified the priority products that we need to address,” said the department’s deputy director-general for chemical and waste management, Mark Gordon.
“We are still in consultation with the industry, consumer groups, and the retailers on how we could phase out or ban these products and what would be the replacement and alternatives for them,” he added.
Meanwhile, Disberry says that Pick n Pay’s decision to cut back on plastic use where possible is a way of helping customers take better care of the environment.
“The impact of plastic is now front of mind for customers,” she said. “We will closely monitor shopping behaviour and if this trial is successful, we can expand the initiative to more stores.”