The announcement that the Queen had banned single-use plastics on the royal estates was one of the more high-profile declarations about the material reported in the media – and yet another obstacle for the plastics industry to overcome as it battles to defend its role in society.
More from: Sector comes out fighting
In the wake of the BBC documentary Blue Planet II and at the launch of the Government’s 25-year environment plan, the prime minister called plastics waste “one of the great environmental scourges of our time”, prompting the British Plastics Federation (BPF) to say it was “very disturbed” by the Government’s language and the impact on an industry which employs 170,000 people in the UK.
As brands get column inches for pledging to phase out plastics packaging from own-brand products (Iceland) and black plastic trays (Waitrose), the plastics sector is now under pressure to clean up its act. Many in the industry counter by saying the debate around plastics lacks perspective, extolling the virtues of the material and, in some cases, shifting the blame for poor recycling rates to Government policies.
The BPF and Independent Packaging Environment and Safety Forum (IPESF) also pointed out that most (90%) of ocean plastics come via rivers in Asia and Africa. “To stop plastics entering the sea from the west, the plastics industry would like to see a tougher stance on littering,” the BPF stated in a press release.
Its sustainability executive Helen Jordan told MRW that the trade body “in many ways” welcomes the attention of the public on the issue because, along with infrastructure improvements for on-the-go recycling, behaviour change was also important.
In a strongly worded statement, the BPF said it was surprised, on environmental grounds, by Iceland’s announcement to reduce plastic packaging in its stores. This line of argument is claimed to be backed by research and commonly used by the industry to defend itself.
Jordan said: “Plastics offer many environmental benefits – a report by Trucost in 2016 found that replacing plastics with alternative materials would increase the environmental cost by four times.
“We want to ensure that the benefits of plastics are part of the ongoing debate about what is best for our en-vironment, because they provide resource-efficient, highly recyclable, light and hygienic protection for pro-ducts.”
According to the findings of a recent survey by European Plastics Converters, a European trade association, brand reputation was the main incentive to recycle for 75% of UK companies and 52% in the rest of Europe.
In another instance, the European Flexographic Industry Association (EFIA) stressed that plastic was actually “a green technology” and that “humans are at fault, not the materials we select”.
EFIA pointed to a study by Incpen, the packaging industry advocacy body, which found that “packaging represents less than 5% of the overall carbon footprint of a typical food product, when assessed from a cradle-to-grave view.” The association gives the example of a steak being resource-rich to bring to the table compared with the tray it sits in.
Tony Gaukoger, director of Colour Tone Masterbatch, which is working on solutions to recycling black plastic trays, said only 1.5% of oil and gas in Europe goes to making virgin plastics. If alternatives to plastic packaging were used, “related energy consumption would double and greenhouse gas emissions would nearly triple,” he told MRW’s sister title Packaging News, citing Plastics Europe data.
Responding to Iceland’s announcement, David Wilson, managing director of UK plastics recycler Vanden Recycling, said: “When Iceland’s MD Richard Walker said that recycling plastic was not enough, that it was just recycling the problem, he was partially right…Trying to recycle the unrecyclable is the problem.”
He highlighted single-use plastics as the culprit and advised that “new policy, legislation, design, behaviours and processes” were needed.
The IPESF said: “The Government has been happy to allow the tens of millions of pounds contributed over the past 20 years by packaging producers, material manufacturers, packer fillers, retailers and importers to be used to subsidise the export of plastics packaging waste to the Far East in order to meet EU recycling targets. This is instead of investing in the development of a sustainable UK plastics recycling industry for which the monies raised by the packaging recovery note (PRN) system were originally intended.”
And Martin Kersh, executive director of the Foodservice Packaging Association, said his association had “had enough of life on the back foot”, adding: “If we’d continued to focus on defence then we would have been so totally distant from the public we would be destined for permanent pariah status.”
His association, alongside the BPF, supports strategies to increase the recycling of food on-the-go and reform of the PRN system. The challenge is trying to ensure these arguments are heard above the anti-plastic clamour.