This post is by Colin Church, chief executive of IOM3 and chair of Green Alliance’s Circular Economy Task Force.
Single use plastic is evil, or so we are repeatedly told in the media. From ‘Blue planet’ to ‘The war on plastic’, much recent discussion has focused on moving away from plastic. I’m not going to argue that plastic stirrers are a good thing, but ‘plastic bad – all other materials good’ is just too simplistic; I want to make the case for a different approach.
The debate first and foremost should be about whether having a disposable item at all is the right solution, or whether thinking differently could give a better result. Modern, wealthy societies have grown too comfortable with the convenience of disposable culture and are only now starting to understand the significant environmental consequences, both in terms of the waste generated and the resources consumed. Materials – many of which are finite and needed for our transition to a low carbon and resource efficient society – are still vastly undervalued and routinely wasted.
We need to eliminate the unnecessary use of materials
The first option should always be to avoid using a resource in the first place. Magazine publishers have been having a lively debate about how to wrap their products. Some come in a recyclable plastic wrap. Others come in ‘compostable’ plastic or paper wraps, but these all have their downsides. The former can be problematic in current waste and recycling systems, and the latter is significantly heavier and more resource intensive. So why not design it out and go for ‘naked mailing’, as we are seeing more and more? Our modern postal system copes with it perfectly well.
The next option is reuse, the classic example is water on the go, where a typical refillable water bottle only needs to be topped up with tap water 15 times to be better than a plastic single use bottle. This is a far better solution than moving to glass, carton, or aluminium single use options.
These two options should be our starting point, as this way we can truly cut resource use and, in the process, help us to get closer to meeting net zero carbon. But one of the major challenges with this way of thinking is that it often requires system changes. We need widely available public water fountains or refill stations to make refillable water bottles an option, for example. Left to its own devices, the market finds this kind of thing difficult to do, especially where the costs are paid by one actor with the benefits going to another.
The Environment Bill is missing an easy win
This is why the current approach in the Environment Bill – creating a power to place a charge on single use plastic items – is just too narrow. To give the government the ability to encourage the move away from disposability, wherever it makes sense, this power should apply to all single use items, whatever they are made of. This way, the market can be harnessed to deliver a more joined-up solution.
That is why IOM3 has joined with a group of businesses, professionals and representative organisations to support an amendment to the bill, expected to be debated this week. This would give the government the power to introduce charges for single use items in general, not just those made from plastic. As it stands, the power is unnecessarily short sighted and could simply create new environmental problems rather than eliminating them.
Where there is currently no reasonable alternative to a disposable item, we need to think carefully about what the right material is for that use and not blindly move away from plastic to something that could lead to similar, if not more, environmental damage.
All impacts need to be considered
First, we need to consider the impacts on our ability to meet the net zero carbon goal for the economy. In its work for the recent Green Alliance Circular Economy Task Force report Fixing the system, PwC estimated that switching all current consumption of plastic packaging to other packaging materials could almost triple associated carbon emissions. That is clearly not the right outcome. And that is before we take into account that plastic can be very good at preventing food waste and the associated carbon emissions, which is not the case for all its replacements.
Second, there are wider environmental implications from switching materials. For example moving to fibre (paper and card) would require many more paper mills to be built; more aluminium means more mining and smelting; more glass means more sand extraction; and so on. Each of these have accompanying extra water, energy and chemical use, deforestation, habitat destruction, air pollution and transport implications.
Finally, the end of life of a product has to be factored in, especially when its in-use life is short. An aluminium or steel can that is infinitely recyclable – in the right collection and reprocessing system – may well be better from an environmental perspective than a carton made of paper, plastic and metal that is hard to recycle effectively. We know now that plastic pollution can be very damaging, so we should only be using plastic items where the system is in place to keep them from escaping into the environment. Complicated, multi-material items can be a nightmare to handle at end of life so this needs to be considered at the design stage too.
Four questions should always be asked of single use items:
- Do we need it?
- Does it have to be disposable?
- What is the best (functionally and environmentally) material for this item?
- Do we have the right collection and reprocessing ecosystem to handle it?
Embedding this sort of approach across society requires more strategic direction from government. The first, simple step should be to acknowledge the avoidable harm of all unnecessary single use items, not only those made from plastic. A small tweak to the Environment Bill on this front would send a big signal.
Photograph: London water fountain near Kentish Town tube station by Luke Garratt/Greater London Authority