The movement towards reducing plastic production and waste has been gathering strength for some time. Images of littered beaches and plastic items being pulled from the stomachs of animals have been splashed across the media.
But the damage that seemingly indestructible single-use plastic is doing to the environment has proved to be more than a short-lived attention-grabber: the public has put the problem at the top of their agenda, with businesses and the Government doing the same.
The Treasury has said that a recent consultation demonstrated “record-breaking public support” for the idea of reducing single-use plastics and boosting recycling through the tax system, while businesses and campaign groups have also expressed overwhelming support for action to tackle the impact of plastics on the environment.
Press reports claiming that only a proportion of waste collected by local authorities is actually being recycled due to difficult to recycle materials or contamination have also added to plastic’s out-of-favour status.
Chancellor Philip Hammond has reportedly confirmed that increasing the levy on single-use plastic bags from 5p to 10p – as well as extending it to retailers of all sizes – is an idea that is still firmly on the table, indicating how confident the Government is about the strength of the public’s plastic backlash.
Manufacturers and retailers are starting to tackle the issue, whether from a sense of corporate responsibility, an awareness of the impact on brand image or concerns about changing consumer habits.
Lucozade Sport, for example, is to trial sports drinks and gels encased in an edible seaweed layer. Tesco is to sell water in recyclable aluminium cans in hundreds of its shops, and other manufacturers are using alternative materials for packaging, such as Aquapax’s mineral water in cartons.
But what are the wider implications of the plastic backlash on the environment, businesses, waste management companies and councils? Are we really ready to embrace plastic alternatives, and what problems might a move towards cans, cartons and compostable materials create that will need to be properly considered if we are to achieve a long-lasting move away from damaging single-use plastics?
WRAP’s Plastics Pact was launched in April and 64 businesses, responsible for more than 80% of plastic packaging on products sold in UK supermarkets, have signed up to it. The voluntary agreement between Governments, businesses, local authorities, NGOs and citizens aims to eliminated ‘unnecessary’ single-use plastic packaging, and increase the amount of recyclable and reusable plastic packaging.
The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) is a founder member of the Plastics Pact. Chief executive Paul Vanston said there was much to applaud about the UK’s recycling and waste reduction efforts in the past 20 years. However, he believes there is more work to be done by every sector in the value chain.
“There is a shortage of recycled material of the quality required for water and drinks packaging. But demand is increasing and so supply needs to increase for a circular economy to be achieved.”
“I’d advocate intensive and meaningful participation in the Pact by designers, manufacturers, retailers, councils, resource management companies and reprocessors because we need to open doors to greater recycling, and embedding circular economy approaches,” he said. “[But] not everything can be done by the value chain alone.
“Governments can help greatly with the right regulatory framework, and driving behaviours and decisions by means of incentives. It is also important to unlock economic value and environmental stewardship goals through the industrial strategy and the forthcoming resources and waste strategy.”
But Vanston also warned that a move towards alternative packaging materials needs to be considered carefully.
“It is really important that the understandable urges to adopt sustainable packaging options are well-explored and do not inadvertently end up with worse environmental consequences. That means recycling in theory must mean councils and waste management companies recycling in practice. This is also the case [when considering] compostable packaging.”
There is also the question of whether or not we currently have the best collection and recycling infrastructure in place to deal with alternative materials, and what else may need to be done to ensure the goals of initiatives such as the Plastics Pact are achieved.
Vanston says that Incpen, WRAP and Defra’s Advisory Committee on Packaging wrote to environment secretary Michael Gove in April this year with a series of recommendations for whole-system changes. They said the top measures needed were consistency in the range of polymers used for retail and grocery packaging, much greater consistency of council collection regimes and unambiguous labelling to consumers on recycling.
“This is critical so consumers have clarity at the precise time they need it about which bin they should put an item into,” said Vanston. “No more should people need to ‘check locally’ for packaging recycling information. My suggested timeline for all this to come together nationwide is by October 2023, if not earlier.”
All of this, of course, presents huge challenges for councils, who are in the front line for collections. Local Government Association environment spokesperson Judith Blake says that for years it has been asking manufacturers to make packaging more easy to recycle.
“It’s time for manufacturers to stop letting a smorgasboard of unrecyclable and damaging plastic flow into our environment,” she said. “Some of the measures that could help us to reduce landfill and increase recycling are no-brainers. For instance, microwave meals should be presented in a container that is any other colour than black to enable quicker recycling.”
How big brands are tackling the issue
- Drinks firm Lucozade Sport plans to trial plastic-free sports drinks and gels encased in an edible seaweed package. Brand owner Lucozade Ribena Suntory has collaborated with sustainable packaging firm Skipping Rocks Lab to trial the spherical packaging product, named Ooho, at running events this month. Made entirely from seaweed extract, Oohos are edible and compostable, biodegrade naturally in four to six weeks and can be eaten or disposed of in food waste bins.
- Supermarket chain Aldi is phasing out the use of hard-to-recycle black plastic trays on a range of fresh produce and replacing them with clear, recyclable alternatives as part of its commitment to ensure all its packaging is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. Black plastic cannot easily be separated by machinery used to process household waste, and is often diverted to landfill or incinerated. Aldi estimates that the measure will save around 265 tonnes of plastic a year. The supermarket is also changing the packaging of its pasta pots to use 95% recycled material, which it says will cut plastic use by another 139 tonnes a year.
- Supermarket chain Morrisons is to return to using paper wrapping for its flower bouquets as part of drive to reduce plastic use. The ‘hydro paper’ has wax mixed into it to make it waterproof. The paper is FSC-certified, 100% recyclable, and protects the stems as well as its plastic counterpart, the supermarket says. The first bouquets will switch to paper this month with the rest following next year. Morrisons estimates it will save 925 tonnes of plastic a year.
- Beer producer Carlsberg is aiming to reduce plastic use by 1,200 tonnes a year by replacing the plastic rings holding its six packs together with glue. The Snap Pack uses small dots of glue to hold the cans together in multiple packs, and has been launched in the UK on Carlsberg Export in more than 500 shops. Carlsberg says the glue is robust enough for in-store handling, but allows the cans to be snapped apart easily when needed. It is part of its sustainability programme ‘Together Towards Zero’.
- Tesco claims it is the first UK supermarket to use recycled plastic to resurface a car park, at its Cuckoo Bridge shop in Dumfries, working with plastic road company MacRebur. The parking area was resurfaced using waste plastic that was added into an asphalt mix. According to Tesco this stopped around 900kg of plastic going to landfill or incineration, and reduced its carbon footprint by more than a tonne. The supermarket says it is committed to making all packaging fully recyclable or compostable by 2025.
“Oohos are edible and compostable, biodegrade naturally in four to six weeks and can be eaten or disposed of in food waste bins.”
Blake also thinks that the Government has a role to play in incentivising this as a priority.
“We’ve been calling for producers of unrecyclable materials to develop a plan to stop them from entering the environment. That needs to happen urgently, but the Government should now consider banning low-grade plastics in order to increase recycling.
“If manufacturers do not want to get serious about producing material which can be recycled and protect our environment, then they should at least contribute towards the cost that local taxpayers have to pay to clear it up.
“We need an industry-wide, collaborative approach where together we can reduce the amount of material having an impact on the environment,” Blake added. “But if industry won’t help us get there, then the Government should step in to help councils.”
Manufacturers and other industry stakeholders are taking steps to tackle the issue. The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and a group of bottled water and soft drinks manufacturers have published a report setting out a roadmap to eliminate plastic packaging waste from the bottled drinks value chain by 2030.
The report sets out key actions and aspirations, including that producers commit to all bottles being made eventually from 100% recyclable or reusable material, and aim for at least 70% recycled material by 2025.
It also recommends that producers and the Government investigate the optimal ‘material of the future’ for soft drinks, carry out research into consumer behaviour and create a consistent nationwide recycling system.
But what are the main challenges in making water and drinks packaging entirely from recyclable and recycled material?
“Consumers must have clarity at the precise time they need it about which bin they should put an item into. No more should people need to ‘check locally’ for packaging recycling information.”
Kinvara Carey, general manager of the Natural Hydration Council (NHC), whose members were involved in developing the report, said that although plastic bottles and caps are already 100% recyclable, some secondary and tertiary packaging provides a recycling challenge. The ambition is for these materials to be 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025.
“There is currently a shortage of recycled material of the quality required for water and drinks packaging. But demand is increasing and so supply needs to increase for a circular economy to be achieved,” says Carey. “Producers need to ensure that their packaging is recyclable, and then it is about clear labelling and adequate infrastructure to ensure consumers can recycle.”
Carey said the NHC recognises the need for co-ordinated action and that the CISL is intending to convene a wider group of organisations: “Producers need to work with stakeholders to improve the recycling infrastructure so that the plastic collected can be made into good quality material for reuse in new packaging.”
The CISL report also recognised the need for incentives for businesses to help achieve these goals. It calls for a comprehensive revision of extended producer responsibility policy – which currently comprises the packaging recovery note (PRN) system – to generate investment and encourage higher rates of recovery and recycling.
Proposals include financially rewarding recyclability and use of recycled material; making sure all proceeds from a new PRN fund go back into supporting infrastructure and consumer campaigns; and ensuring all producers, reprocessors and exporters are part of the system.
The CISL report acknowledged the need for adequate investment in the latest technology and facilities, so that high-value bottled water and soft drinks packaging can be separated and used as feedstock for new packaging.
“The right facilities do exist in the UK but there need to be more of them,” said Carey. “We need to ensure that consistency of collection is in place where the best practices become the norm.”
Alternative materials to plastic are being explored in packaging, but switching to them is likely to have environmental costs and these will need to be assessed carefully.
Treasury gets involved
chancellor philip hammond
Chancellor Philip Hammond has said the Treasury is committed to taking action to reduce single-use plastics usage through the tax system. According to the department, it has received an unprecedented 162,000 responses to its call for evidence on how this could be done.
The Treasury said there was “a clear indication of the public appetite for more fiscal interventions to help reduce plastic pollution littering our environment, from inner-city streets and countryside to our oceans”.
Measures being considered which apparently received noteworthy public support include encouraging greater use of recycled plastic in manufacturing; discouraging difficult to recycle plastics, such as carbon black plastic; reducing demand for single-use plastics including coffee cups and takeaway boxes; and encouraging further recycling instead of incineration.
The Treasury said it was also looking at how to support the development of greener products and innovative processes that are sustainable.
According to the Government consultation, some responses from producers called for the environmental impact of materials to be considered holistically, and that the related impact on food waste, resource and energy efficiency, water and land use, and emissions must all be considered along with recyclability of material.
It was noted that, according to such criteria, there would be some cases in which in plastic was still the best option.