Setting the record straight: our view on plastic packaging

Fruit DisplayLast 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.

New risks are emerging
We all know there are longstanding problems with recycling, and Green Alliance has produced other reports and blogs and events to suggest how to deal with those.

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.

One comment

  • As with all problems there is no ‘silver bullet’ to this problem (and polystyrene, etc), but a multiple-vector approach might help – some thoughts that spring to mind:

    1 – Making better use of the material and energy already invested in the current plastic rubbish as a resource for recycling, repurposing or energy production;
    2 – Banning production and use of all plastics that cannot be reused, recycled or keeps an environmental impact degradation;
    3 – Minimising use of all plastics;
    4 – Encourage people to use their own reusable storage solutions to buy loose items instead of pre-packed items;
    5 – Ensuring reused, recycled plastics also do not become a future problem, such as micro-fibres from clothes made from recycled plastics getting into the environment;
    6 – Ensuring cyclic economy principles are mandated in the design of everything so their constituent materials can be easily segregated and/or have a follow-on life use;
    7 – Finding more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic that generate new national Triple Bottom Line benefit for use in UK and global export, but ones that don’t generate a new problem;
    8 – Banning plastics from landfill, but requiring collection approaches to ensure plastic goes to W2E or other uses;
    9 – Mandating deposit and return/refund schemes that producers of plastic need to fund;
    10 – Making the return or disposal of plastics simple, convenient, trustworthy and rewarded for consumers.
    11 – Start with a ban on all single-use plastics;
    12 – Ban unnecessary packaging – why does a coconut need packaging?
    13 – Mandate smarter rubbish separation technologies to use municipal waste as a resource with real value;
    14 – Reduce/stop charging for taking rubbish at waste sites, instead give people a voucher with value for the resources that have provided and for their civic responsibility – should also reduce fly tipping;
    15 – Adopt from, and spread to, best practice and best technologies from the world;
    16 – Government to set a realistic but ambitious transformation plan and stick to it – resist the ‘it is too difficult and will be too expensive’ normal lobbying arguments from industry – zero single use plastic by 2025, zero oil-based plastic by 2030?
    17 – Whatever is done has to answer the simple question to nudge behaviours in the desired direction – what is in it for me?

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