Were the Woolies egg cartons really so bad?

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File: The question remained how it is possible that a decision was made to replace perfectly good cardboard egg containers with environmentally harmful plastic ones.

Today, I sat down to write a column about how we really have to get better at recycling plastic, and how our retailers have to get better at not making us take plastic home in the first place.

This followed on from last week’s social media fracas, after which Woolworths pulled its new range of plastic egg boxes off the shelves of its stores. While Woolworths must be given credit for responding so quickly and appropriately to a consumer (and environmental) concerns, the question remained how it is possible that a decision was made to replace perfectly good cardboard egg containers with environmentally harmful plastic ones – or so I thought.

 

 

This morning, when I did a bit of research, I learnt that that plastic is, without question, an environmental hazard. Here are some numbers, from www.worldwatch.org: In 2013, 299 million tons of plastic Were produced. However, between 22 percent and 43 percent of this ends up in landfills, taking up valuable space and between 10 and 20 million tons end up in the ocean each year. Currently, 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing 268 940 tons are floating in the world’s oceans and damaging individual creatures and ecosystems.

So, we can all agree, plastic is bad. However, it seems we can’t necessarily be so certain that cardboard is any better.

According to howstuffworks.com (which provides reputable sourcing for its facts and figures), paper manufacturing emits 80 percent more greenhouse gases than plastic manufacture. Making paper also results in 50 times more water pollutants, consumes more energy, consumes more water and is more inefficient to recycle than plastic creation.

So while my friends and I were shaking our heads at how it’s possible that Woolworths could have made a decision to replace a perfectly functioning cardboard solution with a bad, evil plastic one, it turns out that it’s not necessarily as clear cut as all that. Cardboard behaves well after it’s manufactured; plastic behaves much better while it’s being created.

But here’s the thing. When a retailer is forced to respond to a consumer outcry, they often have to make decisions based on perception rather than reality (except Ford, they apparently don’t care how unhappy their consumers are about their cars bursting into flames).

Social media outrage, while it can be a very effective tool for activism and change, can also silence rational debate. I have no idea whether or not Woolworths management did weigh up the respective merits of paper versus plastic when making the egg container decision, but I am sure that they are aware of the conflicting drawbacks generally speaking.

But the public believes that plastic is bad. We’ve all seen that photo of the deformed turtle, right? And therefore, rather than entering into a debate on whether that particular plastic egg box was manufactured more or less sustainably than a cardboard one, Woolworths withdrew the product.

As with so many things in life, environmental awareness is not black and white. We can’t declare all plastic to be bad, and then happily replace it with – or keep using – cardboard alternatives. With as many humans as there are on the face of the planet, consumption of just about anything places a strain on the world’s resources. We shouldn’t be trying to replace; we should be doing our best to reduce.

Whether a turtle dies because he got strangled by a beer can holder, or because his environment got obliterated by rising global temperatures caused by carbon emissions, he’s still dead. We have to become better custodians of the whole ecosystem not just one small aspect of it.

Did Woolworths do the right thing? I honestly have no idea. And I imagine it would take a team of environmental consultants a few years to give a clear answer in this specific case. Until then, we have to keep on, as individuals, fighting the good fight (even if it isn’t as straightforward as we thought), and making whatever changes we can, even when it is a little uncomfortable or inconvenient for us to do so.