How Barcodes Can Help Stop the Plastic Waste Stream

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This week, Clara Salina shares her take on the problem of Plastic Soup and how we could stop the plastic waste stream. We would love to hear what you think of this proposal. If you too have ideas on how to turn the tide, please leave a comment. Together we can make a difference!

Let’s say it clearly: reading reports about the current situation of our oceans and seas makes everyone feel useless and incapable of doing enough compared to the magnitude of the problem.

Europe is far ahead on waste control and recycling, but what about developing countries just touched by new economic powers? Their people are totally amazed by the consumerism hypnosis.

How I Failed to Convince Others To Cut Plastic Waste

About me: I’m an Italian living in Chile since 2006, coming from the part of Italy where carbon footprint is a concept learned 20 years ago with the book “Our ecological footprint” by sustainability advocate Mathis Wackernagel.

You should not be surprised to read that I desperately tried to make people around me aware of the environment and the importance of waste management, ever since the very first day I arrived here.

Nevertheless; I failed. I failed for years. I had no way to make my friends and neighbors here aware. I tried being kind and explaining, being direct and scaring them, or imperatively saying: no plastic and reduce your waste, please! Every attempt was pretty useless: this is where my solution comes from.

It’s Time To Turn the Tide

The current situation clearly shows that if we want to stop polluting global waters, the current recycling model, focused on producer responsibility and final consumer awareness, will not prevent the continued accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans.

Beyond the lack of awareness, proof of this is that also found in the Mediterranean Sea, which is currently experiencing high levels of plastic pollution, despite the fact that its coastline meets countries with advanced policies on this issue.

Plastics have only been around for 60 years, and have already started filling up oceans and seas. The question is: with such a low awareness in developing and transitional countries, will we have enough time to control the disposal of this material following the rhythm of the current recycling model?

The Missing Link: Shops!

Reverting the paradigm is a necessity worldwide and observing the recycling model, you realize that a link in the chain is missing: retail.

Retail in cities has changed, small local shops have closed and supermarkets have taken their places. Beyond the terrible loss of human interaction while shopping, the number of products in jars or packed in plastic sold by supermarkets has risen exponentially.

Even as the use of plastics has multiplied with retail, retailers are not even considered within the chain of responsibility: indeed the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) concept refers only to producers and consumers.

Holding Shops Responsible for Plastic Waste

My solution to plastic soup takes the Extended Producer Responsibility a step further by including and controlling this crucial and forgotten player in the current model of consumption: retail shops and supermarkets.

Of course consumers must continue recycling, but experience clearly shows that the potential to decrease plastic waste could not depend only upon consumer awareness.

In my “Barcode vs Plastic Waste” proposal, supermarkets would be responsible for all plastic recollection associated with products they sell, while governments would maintain the duty of control.

The Magic Tool? Barcodes!

For this purpose, the barcode, which identifies any item sold, offers the possibility to track all plastic containers and packaging by simply including the weight and material composition in the barcode.

Having the packaging information inside the barcode will offer an easy way to obtain the necessary data to apply follow-up control leading to its recollection.

This way, we would be able to track the recyclable materials through their entire transaction system in real-time, allowing us to review any cash register day by day. This information would be provided just as the cash register’s account balance appears at the end of the day.

As we have already mentioned, supermarkets do hold responsibility for encouraging the use of plastic and packaging, but they also have the potential to encourage and provide incentives to producers and consumers to reduce their plastic quantities or eliminate plastic use all together.

Even if this can seem complicated to imagine, requesting supermarket to recollect all plastic that passes through their shop would provoke, as immediately response, an internal/external marketing educational and massive campaign: it would be taught to employees and consumers would be immediately requested to take the plastic back to the shop.

For the first time, retailers would be responsible for recycling because they would have a target quantity to achieve in their recollection.

Stopping the Plastic Waste Stream

Definitively, supermarket cash registers are the last control in the commercial process. After that, only individual awareness and the environment remain.

The “Barcode vs Plastic Waste” proposal is a way to stop plastic pollution before it reaches the environment by giving the responsibility to retailers, the rich and powerful actors within the consumption chain.

Please find the full length proposal at academia.edu.

What do you think of this solution? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please join the conversation by leaving a message below. Happy Plastic-Free Tuesday!

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7 Comments

  1. Here in Australia we have the REDcycle Program. The RED Group collects flexible plastic packaging that customers have placed in the drop off bins at participating supermarkets and have it recycled it into sturdy recycled-plastic outdoor furniture, signage and other traffic control products.

  2. I’ve just personally experienced helping unpack 7000 boxes of Christmas trim and ornaments. SO MUCH packaging waste and transportation waste–makes me and my coworkers feel awful about how we are destroying Earth for trinkets. Nothing—— no packaging was attempted to be collected and reused at this very large retailer. These companies need to be held responsible and be rewarded for repurposing/reusing such packaging. It’s a huge problem, not just with Christmas trim as they call it but with clothing–we need to track it just as you suggest with the bar code–also municipalities need to start holding these retailers responsible for their waste stream–especially the Styrofoam–by auditing their trash and asking for documentation maybe we can improve the options for packaging. Then come the bags for the holidays–that’s where we could appeal to the public–with incentives maybe.

    • Dear Sarah
      you got the point.
      Before the Supermarket era, people were buying at little shops just behind the corner. We got out with our textile bag and, back home, the maximum waste we produced in term of packagings was some sheets of papers.
      Obviously, at that time, the Municipality service had to take care about the trash the city was producing. But NOW trash is creating to improve the business of private companies (Walmart, Carrefour and so on) and still Municipalities and consumers are considered to be responsible of recycling.
      Consumers must be aware and Municipalities must provide the recycling.

      Changing the paradigm: I ask:
      Why Public Administration has to charge the pollution of such rich and huge private companies?
      Public Administration should simply control them and a very strictly control can be done using the same barcode already used on any item sold.
      Consumers should simply give back packagings and jars to the last point from they got out from the marketing system ..

  3. I have always thought that programs in some USA states requiring deposits on aluminum cans (paid by the consumer, returned when brought to recycling center/machine) work quite well. However, whereas I assume this is mostly economical because of the relative ease and benefit of recycling cans, plastics don’t offer such a clear economic motive. It would simply need to be done as a waste prevention measure. If mandatory tariffs were introduced for packaging as it has been for shopping bags, that would probably help a lot.

    • Annemieke

      Thanks for stopping by, Evan! I just returned from a short holiday on Madeira, Portugal and reading up about plastic bag fees, I came across a study about this in Madeira. The authors looked at supermarkets that voluntarily charged €0.02 per plastic bag and concluded that “Taken together, the different effects of charging for plastic bags represents a potential reduction of 64%.” Sounds like a plastic bag fee indeed works really well!

      • I totally agree with you Evan but my proposal goes far beyond. We general thing to bags when we think to plastic, but plastic is in almost any product you buy at supermarket: shampoos, cleansers, soft drinks…
        Tons of plastic that once got out from the shop can go anywhere.
        Lack of awareness in Chile (where I live), China, USA or Bangladesh turns to the same point: the planet is a village from the environmental point of view, we are all connected as the climate change problem shows clearly.
        But there is something else: plastic garbage patches are full of mosquitos eating zooplankton and fish eggs. Without antagonists they are proliferating without control: my big question to marine biologists is “are you sure they are not contributing with acidification? Please read my full length proposal, I look forward to reading your feedback.
        Best

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