We have 6 still functioning soap dispensers in a cupboard and we refill the three that we use. Although the refill packages sold in supermarkets around here cost about the same as soap with a new dispenser. And they are only twice as big as a dispenser anyway, so not many people buy them. Thus, supermarkets do not have them in stock sometimes. They do have the dispensers though, all the time, full shelves. Luckily my mother found an online shop that sells big 5 l canisters of liquid soap which lasts us a year and we can reduce the amount of plastic we use by an infinitesimal amount. And since I cut myself at work rather badly yesterday, all I can do is think and I went down a rabbit hole of thought that I shall elaborate on now in this post a bit.
On each supermarket shelf around here, one can see several different spray bottles of window cleaners of multiple shapes and sizes, although with just a few discrete volumes. The same goes for soap dispensers, disinfectants, antifungals, toilet cleaners, etc. Each brand that sells 0,5 l or 1 l of some liquid has its own unique bottle shape, its own unique plastic wrap around it, and its own unique cap. And sometimes those caps are made in a way that allegedly prevents children from accidentally opening them but in reality, give more grief to people with a hand injury like me right now or to elderly people with arthritis like my mother than to any child old enough to reach an upper shelf in the bathroom.
Those safety lids are a special pet peeve of mine. I was cleaning the shower the other day and I wanted to rinse the bottle of disinfectant before tossing it. And I found again what I have forgotten – the spray bottle is deliberately made so that the lid cannot be unscrewed. Why? I do not know. I do not know anyone who knows anyone whose child imbibed a disinfectant or window cleaner from a spray bottle. I have read about some such cases in the news with regard to bottled dish cleaners, but those are still sold without the safety lids and none of the kids was severely hurt! However, I did read several cases about adults imbibing some seriously dangerous liquids (like lye) with sometimes lethal consequences because they themselves put them in soda bottles and did not label them properly. In my personal opinion, these “safety” lids have one purpose only – to make the item single-use. They may save one life in a million or so, but they definitively increase plastic pollution by an order of magnitude, and the lives that cost cannot be easily quantified.
Do we really need 10 different shapes of a bottle for a disinfectant that gets poured into the toilet? Is that what the famous “customer choice” is about? In my opinion, the choice should be about what is in the bottle and how well it works.
And this got me thinking, could all this be avoided? In my opinion yes. But it has to be done from the top down by a legislative action that forces the corporations to behave. Because as the hard-to-get refill packages for soap dispensers demonstrate, personal action does not work.
So if I were the Supreme Leader of the EU, here is my proposal for how it could be done:
- Standardise spray bottles and soap dispensers etc into just 1 container for each used volume. Make the bottles refillable by law. Material is either stainless steel for the more corrosive liquids, aluminum for the less corrosive, and glass for the stationary dispensers. All these three materials are easy to recycle and there is an extensive infrastructure to do so already. Labeling must be printed on paper, not plastic, and can be the only brand-specific thing. The purchasing costs of the dispensers would be bigger, but they would last a lot longer, orders of magnitude longer.
- Standardise refill containers in just a few volumes too and make it compulsory to have them on sale in greater amounts than the dispensers/sprays bottles etc. The material should be either PP or PET, undyed, and without fillers. Standardized containers could be, with some tweaking of infrastructure, re-used several times before they would need to be scrapped. And both PP and PET can be recycled several times before they degrade even if the reuse were implausible or impractical. And 1 5 l container uses less plastic than 5 1 l bottles. Labeling again printed on paper and the only brand-specific thing.
- If the caps need to be chid-proof and/or single-use for some products, they still can. Even if made from non-recyclable plastic, at this point it would be negligible when compared to what we have now. But I am not convinced this is more useful than, say, an education campaign to teach parents to keep dangerous things out of their kid’s reach.
Apart from the obvious way this would reduce the amount of plastic pollution, there are other ways this would help to reduce the carbon emission of the whole industry. Standardized containers would mean less demand for steel molds. One machine producing 10 identical refill bottles at a time consumes less energy and has a smaller footprint (both area and CO2) than 10 machines making 10 distinct, brand-specific bottles in 10 smaller molds. Transport costs would also be lower than now because those bottles are even now, the liquid manufacturers often do not make those themselves, they buy them from specialists. And standardized bottles could mean better optimization of distribution delivery routes among different manufacturers.
Oh, and the same thing could be done for soda, and liquor bottles.
Would it work? I think it would. After all, most of this is already done for beer and soda cans and beer bottles so why not for Hi Ginny?