It’s Not In The Bag Yet
The plastic packaging debate has achieved a level of engagement which sustainability practitioners can usually only dream of. Of the many issues that face mankind, pollution was one of those that was singled out by the late Professor Stephen Hawking as amongst the most pressing. He spoke primarily about atmospheric pollution, but his overall message was just as applicable to plastics. The Chancellor’s spring statement tackled the issue head-on, albeit with something of a slow start. The UK government has launched a consultation into how to use the tax system to encourage the ‘responsible use’ of plastic, with £20m of existing funding being earmarked for new research on reducing the environmental impact of plastic. The Chancellor said: “It will look at the whole supply chain for single-use plastics, at alternative materials, reusable options and recycling opportunities [and] at how the tax system can help drive the technological progress and the behavioural change that we need, not as a way of raising revenue.”
The development and widespread introduction of plastic packaging goes back to the mid-twentieth century and undeniably has positives as well as negatives. Improved hygiene and extended shelf-life are on the plus side of the ledger, and the issue should more properly be framed around plastic waste, rather than plastic per se. The Green Alliance, a “charity and independent think tank focused on achieving ambitious leadership for the environment” (see the Greener Hustings post from last year for another example of their work) has made this very point and warned of the risks of adverse unintended consequences including a possible rise in food waste and change in land-use to produce bio-plastics rather than food. Getting the design right is vital. The oft-quoted figure that 90% of the impact of a product is locked in by (often unconscious) decisions at the design stage (if any readers can point me towards a scientific basis or this figure I would be very interested) is illustrated in the image below. Both of the carriers are used in sandwich packs, the one on the left came from a UK high-street retailer, the one on the right from an Italian motorway services. The specifics of their functionality will be different but the UK product is made from 13g of a bio-degradeable material whereas the Italian one is made from 23g of polythene.
The ubiquity of the problem is illustrated by a study which found micro-plastics in 93% of samples of bottled water. The study was not peer-reviewed, and includes some speculative conclusions, but has nevertheless garnered support from some experts. Clearly more work is needed to get to the bottom of the problem and if ever there was an appetite for such a move, now is surely the time. The industry publication The Grocer featured an editorial leader in its March 24th issue, headed with the words “urgent work is needed to make plastic more sustainable and it’s better if the industry addresses this on the front foot”. A very neat contribution towards addressing the issue has been made by Aldi which, as part of a raft of measures, is phasing out single-use carrier bags and instead offering ‘bags for life’ made from back-of-store plastic waste.
Linking these two strands, Iain Ferguson, Co-Op’s environment manager, has commented both on the benefits of appropriate plastic packaging and the need to address the systemic issues. The Co-Op conducted a full-scale trial in 2012 measuring the waste of wrapped and unwrapped cucumbers and found that wrapping the cucumbers reduced the waste by two thirds. The reources consumed to produce the foodstuffs contained by plastic packaging are typically far more significant than those used to produce the packaging. Of course, that is not to suggest that plastic wrapping on cucumbers (it has other protective benefits too) is the only answer – behavioural changes could also have a major impact on food waste in many areas. Speaking recently to edie, Iain supported the prospect of the Government designing a fiscal system that rewards recyclability and labelling which “will make it progressively burdensome to use materials that can’t economically be recycled by the waste management industry.” It is worth pointing out, though, that the issue is not confined to – indeed not even primarily caused by – food packaging. There are many other sectors, including construction and apparel, which also contribute to the issue.
Action is not limited to the UK. Other nations, who don’t have the spur of Blue Planet II, can also boast progress and I’ve included a handful of examples here. Aldi, mentioned above is German-owned and elsewhere in Europe things are on the move. Denmark’s Lego, perhaps the most iconic plastic product there is, has recently announced the upcoming launch of bricks made from bio-plastic (although these don’t address the end-of-life problem in their current guise) and Prince Albert II of Monaco, calling on the UK to lead the way on tackling plastic pollution in the annual lecture at The Grantham Institute at Imperial College London just a few weeks ago, quoted Winston Churchill, saying: “What is the use of living…if not to make this muddled world a better place.” Further afield, Indonesia’s first edible packaging firm, Evoware, has unveiled plans to automate and rapidly scale up production of its seaweed-based products. This is especially welcome because, as mentioned in earlier posts, the overwhelming majority of ocean plastic waste originates in river systems in Asia and Africa, and research published in the last week has found that the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” between California and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean is growing rapidly.
And so we have government, statesmen, industry, NGOs and the general public all calling for change. Maybe this really will turn out to be one of the ‘tipping points’ which are more often hyperbole than reality. Framing the issue in terms of the SDGs, there are clearly challenges in SDG6 and SDG14. The solution is encapsulated in SDG12, and SDG9 and SDG17 are already demonstrated by the many actors calling for and working towards change.