The post was first published on Business Green.
In December 2017, Blue Planet II shocked the world with disturbing images of plastic pollution: albatrosses feeding their chicks plastic bags, plankton mistaking microplastic for food and young dolphins potentially killed by plastic toxins. In the intervening two years, plastic has rarely left the headlines. Subsequent TV programmes have helped to keep it there, even suggesting that a a war on the material itself was the answer. The public is rightly very concerned, and has demanded change. Governments around the world have promised action, with the UK saying it will lead the way in fighting this global scourge. Companies – both individually and collectively – have made commitment after commitment to address the problem.
And yet, in 2020, supermarket shelves still look remarkably similar to how they looked before David Attenborough’s revelations shocked the world. Evidence from bodies including WRAP and the Environment Agency, suggest plastic packaging levels remain stable and are perhaps even increasing. So, what’s really happening?
To find out, as part of our work for the Circular Economy Task Force, we conducted a series of anonymised interviews with 12 senior representatives from major UK supermarkets and food, beverage and consumer goods companies. We wanted to understand the pressure companies are under to switch away from plastic and what they are planning to do about it. The interviews were held on a confidential basis to ensure respondents could be as frank as possible.
And they did not disappoint. One suggested that the public response has been “ferocious”. Another described resisting pressure to using plastic alternatives “that are not necessarily better from an environmental and climate impact point of view”. Several bemoaned a lack of “joined up thinking”. And one was more than forthright in their annoyance at baseless greenwashing for non-plastic materials: “The past year has just really pissed me off no end with companies coming out and boasting about not using plastic, even when they’re in single use glass, and their carbon emissions are going to be off the scale.”
More change is coming
In response to this public pressure, there have actually been some changes already, but they tend to be in fairly niche areas like fruit bags (in some cases moving from single use plastic to single use paper), frozen foods or ready meals (using coated fibreboard) and single use cutlery (mostly changing to single use wood or compostable plastic).
Retail and production line cycles mean it can take a surprisingly long time to implement changes. One supermarket interviewee, for instance, described a four year process to switch from unrecyclable expanded polystyrene pizza bases to cardboard alternatives. That was started well before Blue Planet, suggesting those that took action after could take a while to filter though.
Some of the brands indicated that this was likely, with one saying that most of their product development is focusing on materials like aluminium and glass rather than plastic. That means there could be more shifts like we’ve started to see with bottled water, where single use glass, cartons and aluminium cans are making inroads into a still growing market that was dominated by single use plastic.
Switching away from plastic could still harm the environment
While reducing plastic, these changes could harm the environment in other ways. Our interviewees indicated that, already, some decisions are being made without proper assessment of environmental impact. Worse, some have been taken knowing they could actually increase environmental harm. One supermarket representative was frank: “We are aware that [by switching from plastic to other materials] we may, in some cases, be increasing our carbon footprint.”
An area of particular concern for many was compostable or ‘biodegradable’ plastic. These alternatives are viewed very favourably by consumers. They could benefit the environment in some situations but only if they can be collected and treated properly. At the moment, there is little consumer understanding of what these terms mean and how the material should be dealt with once used. Contamination of both compostable and conventional plastic recycling streams could become a problem if mistakes are made in dealing with it. Some also suggested that material did not necessarily degrade as expected. As one brand representative we interviewed said: “We trialled doing a fully biodegradable bottle … it was just a disaster…no one knew where to put it. It didn’t really biodegrade very well.”
Companies want the government to do more
In contrast to the current situation – where companies are busy developing their own individual policies around plastic to gain competitive advantage – a more carefully planned and centrally managed approach where everyone follows the same rules could create a system that works much better. One supermarket which has introduced compostable plastic in limited applications noted: “We need to work together as a waste value chain to decide what we do with compostable packaging, where we should use it and how we should mark it so that it can be identified readily.”
Perhaps surprisingly, many companies said they wanted the government to play a bigger role by directing future developments and setting standards so action is coherent across the industry. One brand representative summed up: “If I could have a magic wand, I’d like to see more joined up, top-down government intervention…We would like to see government be braver.”
This is clearly what’s needed to tackle the urgent problem of plastic pollution without making other environmental problems worse. The last thing we want, years down the line, is a new documentary series highlighting the avoidable and shocking problems caused by waging a war on plastic. The fight should be against throwaway society more generally.