/ Sustainability

A look back on World Consumer Rights Day 2021

The consumer movement has marked 15 March with World Consumer Rights Day every year since 1983. Our guest, Consumers International, looks back on this year’s event.

This is a guest post by Consumers International. All views expressed are its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

World Consumer Rights Day highlights the power of consumers and their right to a fair, safe and sustainable marketplace. This year, with theme of Tackling Plastic Pollution, we asked our members to utilise the 7Rs of waste management in their campaigns – because recycling is only a small part of the solution. 

65 member organisations from over 50 countries ran innovative and path-breaking campaigns helping consumers to rethink, refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, repair and replace plastic products in their everyday lives. 19 members held educational workshops with consumers and many more involved consumers directly in practical activities.

Why shout about plastic pollution?

Plastic is an incredibly adaptable and useful material. But the global production and consumption of plastics is now completely unsustainable, and shows no sign of slowing down. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts & SYSTEMIQ report last year, Breaking the Plastic Wave, calculates that the flow of plastics into the ocean will triple by 2040 if we continue with business as usual. Since plastic is made from fossil fuel, by this date the industry will use up 19% of the planet’s total carbon budget. 

What’s more, the 12 million metric tonnes of plastic that we currently throw into our oceans every year have disastrous knock-on effects for marine biodiversity and human health. Once plastic has entered the food chain, it’s not long before it ends up on our plate.

Consumers across the world want to see a change of direction, and are ready and willing to change their consumption habits. Despite the increased use of single-use plastic during the pandemic, 66% of consumers globally have become more concerned about the environment and nearly 74% of consumers (in Europe, the US and South America) are willing to spend more on sustainable packaging.

Taking it global

Global problems require a global response. Our members ran powerful campaigns in their communities, mobilising local consumers for change and demanding action from local businesses and government.

Consumers International can take the case to the international stage. Through our social media channels and website, our members’ campaigns have already reached an audience of over 7 million people globally. World Consumer Rights Day has gained attention from news organisations across the world, from India to China to Ghana

Where next for this growing movement? Many are calling for a new global treaty to tackle plastic pollution. Such an agreement, modelled on the Paris Agreement on climate change, could address the problem at source by putting legally binding caps on plastic production.

But if we have learned anything this World Consumer Rights Day, it is that consumer advocates need to have a seat at the table. Plastic pollution is a consumer rights issue and to tackle one, you have to tackle the other.

This was a guest post by Consumers International. All views expressed were its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Comments

Thanks for your Conversation, Oliver. Cutting down on use of plastic is going to take international action but there is so much we can do ourselves.

I suspect that the coronavirus pandemic has had a considerable impact on the amount of plastic waste. Not only is there personal protective equipment but supermarkets seem to be using more single-use bags. I have been using click & collect services and despite taking my own bags I have been given or paid for hundreds of bags that were not needed.

It’s time to lay down rules about packaging and ensure that companies stick to them unless there is a very good reason not to do so.

To be positive, it is encouraging to see that expanded polystyrene packaging for goods is increasingly being replaced with cardboard.

We could do a lot to cut down on the use of plastics at home (UK). Alternative food packaging materials that are recyclable, paper instead of plastic bags, glass instead of plastic bottles, aluminium instead of plastic food trays, and……

There will be downsides and it would only scratch the surface of an international problem but it would be a start. We could also ban plastic packaging on lots of other goods, including imports, either outright or by disincentives like taxation. I’d also like to see plastic ( synthetic) clothing dealt with – lots of fibres lost when washing) and the use of plastics in health products, nappies, wipes, and suchlike.

Many would not like changes, consumers, manufacturers, distributors alike, but if we don’t grasp the nettle now we will never see sufficient benefits. We banned coal fires with a clean air act, so perhaps we need a plastics act.

Carrier bags the world over are a major problem, and it doesn’t matter where you go, they will be seen littering streets, parks, countryside, hedgerows, rivers and the sea.

Some supermarkets are now delivering groceries without carrier bags. This might seem like a good idea, but I do worry about hygiene.

Most supermarkets don’t seem to have proper crate washing facilities. At best they have a black layer of dirt inside but can be extremely grimy especially if something like eggs has broken and spilled. Drivers frequently put crates on the ground, and who knows what animals have visited there recently.

Since Covid started, I wash/wipe all groceries with either soap and water or Dettox. A recent delivery from Asda highlighted how dirty items can get. Whether it was Asda storage or lack of carrier bags I don’t know, but the items were quite dirty and bits that had attached themselves suggested they may have been picked up in the crates.

I can’t find it now, but on one convo, a food delivery driver gave quite a graphical description of why his hands were very unclean and I wouldn’t want him handling my groceries.

The online supermarket Ocado recycle their carrier bags. They charge you for each bag but refund every bag returned even other supermarket bags, so a very good incentive to return them.

So until an eco alternative is found, instead of no bags, it would be better to levy a very high refundable charge for every carrier bag supplied by a retailer as an incentive to recycle, reuse and reduce waste. I am sure this could be applied to many other plastics as well.

I complained about Morrisons putting bananas in plastic bags a couple of years ago, when I took this photo. They are still doing it. My local store admitted to having complaints.

Other supermarkets seem to manage without putting bananas in bags, and Morrisons does provide paper bags for use by customers.

Sainsbury’s deliveries have gone back to their no-bags policy now but they still bag up bottled cleaning materials and toiletries that have a tendency to leak if they are not kept upright. They also put frozen goods, eggs and flowers in bags.

We haven’t had any problems with dirt and Sainsbury’s emphasise that they do have crate cleansing routines. I have my own large crates for taking the goods indoors; the driver loads them up from the Sainsbury’s totes and I carry them in.

Apart from keeping foodstuffs clean, the bags were very useful for carrying large numbers of small items and for keeping similar items together pending storage in the cupboards; however, I think the world is better off without them.

I still have hundreds of once-used supermarket bags from the time when they put everything in bags – sometimes just one or two items. These get progressively used and then disposed of responsibly, but what is the best method of disposal without having to go into a store and putting them in the bag recycling bin? The council will not accept plastic bags in the household recycling bin so I feel that should be the next major objective in extending recycling facilities. Bags that have already been used more than once go in the general waste bin and are either incinerated or land-filled according to whatever process is favoured on the day. Neither process is environmentally satisfactory so recycling for reuse should be the aim.

I have been collecting my groceries from Morrisons, Tesco and Waitrose and though their crates are well used they looked clean. It’s not difficult for supermarkets to wash their crates and a simple paper liner would not go amiss.

I presume that most councils won’t take plastic bags because various types of plastic are in use. It would be interesting to know the fate of the bags that are collected by supermarkets.

Until coronavirus came along I took my own bags when shopping. Like John, I have now amassed a large collection. If these are oxodegradable plastic (commonly used for supermarket bags) they will be part way along the route to becoming useless, which ends in them falling into pieces and possibly being more of an environmental disaster than ordinary polythene.

Most supermarkets don’t seem to have proper crate washing facilites. One driver I spoke to (can’t remember which supermarket now) said they hose them down when someone has nothing to do.

This is a short film of the Ocado bag recycling process:
https://www.ocado.com/content/bag-recycling-process-148928

I would have expected a daily steam clean function at the supermarket’s motor depot.

A recent achievement has been the ban the ban of sale of products containing plastic microbes: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/world-leading-microbeads-ban-comes-into-force These were widely used in cosmetics and a variety of other products including hand cleaners.

I wonder if we could live without some other products that are likely to produce millions of plastic particles when they break down. My nomination is artificial grass.

Any other suggestions?

Oops. That should read: “A recent achievement has been the ban of the sale of products containing plastic microbeads.”

I did notice the slip but 1. often find I miss letters out when using a screen keyboard and 2. their was some substance to the error https://www.ecowatch.com/scientists-find-bacteria-that-eats-plastic-2645582039.html – they could be describe loosely as plastic microbes.

However, given the millions of tonnes of plastics waste, I wonder what horrors might lie in store if we feed it to these little germs? What kind of huge super race of bugs might emerge, and escape from the confines of waste to devour all our non-waste plastics products. Strip out your car, leave domestic appliances as skeletons, but worse – remove all your wiring insulation.

I think sometimes words get transposed in typing especially if you go back and change a sentence. I noticed there instead of their the other day in one of my posts and I definitely would have typed it correctly.

Plastic eating super bugs? Could be horrendous.

I am well aware of the difference between “there” and “their” and yet I find my fingers (two of them) often type “their” mistakenly as if they are drawn to it. Sometimes the mistake is found too late to edit.

I also suffer from occasional miscommunication between the brain and the fingers with “there” and “their” . I expect that after the first three letters the fingers are in auto mode and repeat the last use of the same three letters for the whole word.

Unfortunately, many people these days do not know the difference and probably cannot actually discriminate the meanings.

I like homophones – they make the language more interesting [albeit more challenging for learners].

I have become too accustomed to hitting ‘Post comment’ and coming back to correct my errors. It does not if the phone rings at the wrong time. 🙁 Autocorrect routinely replaces microbeads with microbes, so I’m usually ready for that one.

I remember we had a discussion about the potential to use microbes to degrade plastic waste when a Japanese research group published an article about Ideonella sakaiensis, a bacterium that produces an enzyme capable of degrading PET. Since then, other microbial enzymes with the potential to degrade other plastics have been discovered.

When products made of biodegradable plastics were first test marketed in Germany and Japan there were concerns that they could degrade on the shelf but that did not happen because biodegradation requires water. I have examples that have survived for 30 years. We know that petrochemical plastics generally degrade very slowly in soil and water, so nature has not yet produced an effective way of dealing with the waste plastics that go into the oceans and landfill. Although plastics will continue to survive in dry conditions there is a potential threat to those used in wet conditions, such as underground cables used to supply electricity and for telecommunications, and plastic water pipes. Hopefully we will not produce GM organisms that are more effective in degrading plastics without thinking about the potential risks.