From as early as the late 19th century, plastics have shaped our lives and by the mid-20th Century the introduction of plastics was seen as an economic miracle, a freedom from the constraints and costs imposed by the scarcity of natural resources. As a by-product primarily of the petrochemical industry synthetic polymers were used in the creation of new materials and synthetic chemicals, transforming manufacturing output and processes across multiple vertical and horizontal industries meaning that many products had become within the reach of even the poorest consumer.
It was only in the mid to late 20th century that environmentalists realised the potential harm it was causing. There were concerns about chemical pesticides, plastic debris in the oceans, oil spills and pollution. The image of plastic also changed to that which was seen as cheap or flimsy. It became a disposable product which, we now know, lasts forever in the environment.
The emotional ‘skin in the game’ came with the Blue Planet II documentary in December 2017 when Sir David Attenborough drew attention to the impact of plastics on sea life across the world’s oceans. This watershed moment created public anger towards manufacturers and governments, urging them to make clear and firm commitments to eliminate plastic. The public started looking at their own environments and coastlines and the harm caused by plastic pollution.
The documentary pointed to the shared responsibility between governments, manufacturers and consumers to make radical changes in how we use, reuse and dispose of plastics, but to corral these stakeholders with the same mission is a real challenge. British consumers had already successfully adopted the ‘bags for life’ strategy within large retailers and supermarkets in order to eliminate single use plastic bags. Since retailers introduced a 5p levy on plastic bags in 2015 sales of these across the 7 biggest supermarkets has plummeted by 90%.
Theresa May’s Government committed to phase out disposable packaging and plastics by 2025 and by the end of June 2018 the British Government had banned the production of plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and cleaning products. In May 2019 the Government announced that single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, drink stirrers and plastic stemmed cotton buds will be banned in England, phased out over 2 years. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said that a wider ban on single use plastics introduced by EU member states would be implemented in England after Brexit.
Many leading retailers and consumer goods manufacturers in the UK have been working with WRAP (Waste and Resource Action Program), an organisation that has delivered initiatives and secured commitments from governments, manufacturers and community bodies to support a more sustainable resource-efficient circular economy. Retailers and WRAP members ASDA, Aldi, Co-op, John Lewis & Partners, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury, Tesco and Waitrose have all made a start in switching some of their single use plastic packaging to recyclable, re-usable or compostable plastics. In many areas of the UK retailers are trialing non-plastic alternatives for food wrapping and packaging: Aldi replacing plastic wrapped tinned tuna with cardboard wrapping and is trialing cardboard steak containers. Retailers, such as Tesco, have given suppliers an ultimatum to present solutions to support their goals to reduce virgin plastic and come up with recyclable or compostable alternatives.
Some plastics are not so easy to recycle. These include multi laminated food pouches which are widely used in soft drinks, yogurts, pet food, baby food and cereal. The industry is reluctant to let these go so some manufacturers have taken an alternative approach by partnering with innovative recycling company Terracycle. Hard to recycle packaging is everywhere and Terracycle focuses on these, working with manufacturers and organisations across the UK and globally by providing programs where packaging such as pouches, wet wipes, crisp packets, bread bags and even contact lens and their blister packs are collected and recycled. Companies partnering with this initiative include Ella’s Kitchen, Acuvue, Febreze, Garnier and Lavazza (eco caps composting). Some non-recyclables, such as black plastic trays, still exist in the system and these need to be eliminated altogether from further production.
Some manufacturers are setting their own targets. In October 2019, Unilever announced plans to halve the amount of new plastics it uses within six years. Like many manufacturers it does not see the practicality in removing its reliance on plastics altogether, so instead it is moving to re-usable, recyclable and compostable alternatives. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are encouraged by this and say that global companies that don’t follow suit will become ‘increasingly irrelevant’ to the environmentally conscious consumer.
Clearly, there is a lot happening behind the scenes, but what of the general public like you and me? A YouGov Custom Survey (Feb-March 2019) found that 82% of Britons are actively trying to reduce the amount of plastic they use. Of these 4 in every 5 were watching out for plastic packaging on the fresh fruit and vegetables they buy which is good news for retailers like Waitrose who have been trialing package-free fruit and veg and have taken 200 of their product range out of packaging.
Two-thirds (69%) of YouGov’s sample think all companies should be required by law to use eco-friendly packaging, even if it pushes up prices. They also want to extend the charge for plastic bags to all retailers. So, it would seem that the public is supportive of all efforts to minimise plastic use.
The eco-friendly alternatives are far from perfect. Consumers are being wooed by organic and natural, recyclable and compostable stories that do not deliver all the facts. For example, sugar cane plastic packaging used by some ethical manufacturers because it reduces 3 kgs of CO² for every 1kg of packaging produced and is recyclable is encouraging, however it is not biodegradable and if it leaches into the environment it will break down into tiny microplastics.
Cardboard and paper also fail to deliver a perfect solution. Paper products are far less reusable than plastic and have a higher carbon footprint over their entire life from breaking a tree down into wood pulp and passing the slurry through enormous rollers. Paper and cardboard often ends up in landfill and rots anaerobically, creating greenhouse gas.
Glass is 100% recyclable, it is food safe and impermeable. It makes no difference how many times glass is recycled its quality never diminishes. It is made of an abundant raw material such as sand and glass waste (cullets). However, the sand used is a specific type and we are currently using it faster than the planet can replenish it. It is sand harvested from seabeds and riverbeds which disrupts the ecosystems living in these areas and leaves shore communities subject to flooding risks and erosion. Moreover, glass is heavier and more fragile than plastic and creates more emmissions in transportation.
What of our efforts to recycle household waste. In 2000 environmentalists Friends of the Earth campaigned for every household in the UK to have a doorstep recycling service, and in 2003 the UK introduced the Household Waste Recycling Act. Today every local authority now provides a household waste collection and recycling scheme. However, moving around the country you would be correct in thinking that there is no consistency in what local authorities collect and recycle.
Research by WRAP found just 74 out of 345 local councils in England collect dry recyclable materials (some but not all plastic containers) and waste food. A quarter of authorities do not recycle plastic packaging, other than bottles and one in ten do not provide glass collections. WRAP also found that 82% of UK households recycle one or more items kerbside that are not targeted by the local collection scheme. There was low awareness amongst consumers of recyclable items which is due to lack of knowledge or confusion. The study also highlighted how detailed and baffling recycling can be to consumers.
To create greater efficiencies WRAP has compiled recycling guidelines following consultation with the recycling industry, listing what can and cannot be recycled, and this aims to be used by local authorities to communicate to their householders.
In conclusion, in the UK there is currently a lack of agency at the highest level in Government and local authorities to drive a united initiative to reduce waste heading to landfill or incineration plants and to significantly improve recycling with more stringent targets. There is a dearth of information to support consumers in making environmentally safe and sustainable decisions with regards packaging and recycling. Irrespective of which region consumers live in, they should be recycling the same items with the same colour-coded system of bins and disposal bags.
There is also a sense that Government, retailers and consumers are looking to manufacturers to deliver solutions which achieve sustainable and environmentally healthy packaging, whereas it feels that manufacturers have passed the buck to their suppliers. Here there is no agency either. Developing a widely adopted strategy for a circular economy which utilises plastics already in the system, while seeking an environmentally sustainable and inexpensive natural polymer in its place should be of paramount importance in moving the UK economy along, for protecting our landscape and seas, and for the health of future generations.