Last week, on behalf of the Circular Economy Task Force, we published an insight into what the grocery sector is really doing about plastic. The report, Plastic promises, has generated considerable amounts of attention and debate, which is gratifying to see. It is especially heartening that it seems to have (finally) got people talking in earnest about why we need to address more than just plastic use and waste if we want a sustainable packaging system.
Misunderstandings and misrepresentations
However, unfortunately the findings of the report have been referred to in the media and on Twitter with varying degrees of accuracy. One of the most common misunderstandings seems to be that we are calling for the status quo to be maintained, which has been, perhaps cynically, jumped on by companies looking to justify a wasteful approach. Another is that we think the only answer is to improve the country’s disjointed recycling system. While the former couldn’t be more wrong, the latter misses the main message of our report.
This research, though, was highlighting a new risk that we can prevent if action is taken now. It shows that, in the absence of clear government leadership, the grocery sector is on the verge of simply replacing plastic for other single use, disposable materials. The current system is not sustainable for plastic, and it will not be sustainable for other materials if they are used in the same way. We must learn the lessons from plastic’s introduction, rather than simply introducing different materials in a haphazard way, and continuing as before.
The main concern is that, with growing awareness of plastic pollution, producers are at risk of ditching it for other materials with other environmental impacts. Although this approach could potentially prevent some plastic pollution, it could also increase other environmental burdens.
Despite worrying trends there are reasons to be cheerful
The relatively small changes made so far indicate a worrying trend. Single use fruit bags are being made of paper, which can have higher carbon impacts, single use plastic ready meals trays are being replaced with coated fibreboard, which is difficult to recycle, and single use cutlery is being made from wood or compostable plastic instead, which UK recycling infrastructure can’t handle. In many of these instances, these are simply replacing one unnecessary item with another.
Perhaps the most hopeful indication from our research, though, was that nearly all the companies we interviewed for the report brought up the potential of reuse systems without any prompting. Many suggested that the case was clear for their expansion, and we agree. But these will only work if they are used as intended. The rise in the use of ‘bags for life’ is a case in point: shoppers are now often using the heavier, more robust bags intended for multiple use like single use bags, purchasing an average of 54 a year, according to recent figures from Greenpeace and the EIA. This is resulting in an overall increase in material use.
Everyone has a role in the solutions
Throwaway culture is so embedded in our lives that it will take a joint effort to change. Fixing it will require everyone – government, producers, retailers, recyclers, the media and the public – to play their part, and not just with regards to packaging. We believe the first step should be to consider the impacts of all the materials we use as we aim for a truly circular economy. That’s one in which products and packaging are designed for longevity, waste minimisation, reusability and finally, recycling. It’s also one that ensures the right systems are in place to realise this potential.
The answer is definitely not the status quo with new materials and a bit more recycling.