Over the past fortnight, the headlines have been full of reports about the scourge of plastic packaging as the UK government and the EU have both declared “war on plastic waste”. Following the shocking scenes seen in Blue Planet 2 last year which illustrated how much plastic is in our oceans, public opinion and the mass media have driven the government to take a stand on the ill effects modern consumerism is having on the environment. However well intended the stand is, Theresa May’s speech and the reporting on the topic has been misjudged, ill-informed and misleading. This a complex problem that’s being oversimplified, with a number of issues being conflated: the problem of littering, the lack of a coherent national recycling programme and the amount of plastics ending up in the oceans.
The Packaging Problem
There is no doubt that plastic pollution in our seas is abhorrent. There is also no doubt that more needs to be done to reduce plastic waste (as well as food waste, and all non-recyclable waste). The focus in the news has been on food packaging, with calls for plastic-free aisles in supermarkets, and shops such as Iceland announcing they will stop the use of plastic for all own brand products. These announcements are creating the impression that plastic itself is wrong, that any and all plastics are bad. Whilst many items are needlessly over-packaged, packaging is often good for long term waste reduction. As the BPF director, Philip Law, pointed out:
“Typically, food waste in stores increases by a third without packaging. For example, a wrapped cucumber lasts 14 more days than one that is not. Cutting out plastic packaging for fresh produce will actually harm the environment through increased CO2 emissions because the energy used to produce food is much greater than in the packaging protecting it.”
Plastic food packaging is often better than alternatives – take orange juice for example. A card carton is lined, made of mixed materials and is difficult to recycle, just like a takeaway coffee cup. A plastic bottle, such as the HDPE handled jugs used for milk, is easily recycled.
Recycling initiatives in the UK are incredibly disparate. There needs to be funding for the infrastructure to cope with sorting and processing recycling waste, especially since we can no longer export our recyclables to China. The infrastructure needs to be put in place so that there is a coherent kerbside collection service across the UK, with a unified policy rather than leaving it to local authorities.
Litter is a big part of this problem, and a crime that is supposed to incur fines, in the past few years some local councils have started to enforce fines more heavily – bringing in much needed revenue and helping to raise awareness of the issue. As well as fines, we need more bins in public areas, with a recycling bin next to every rubbish bin. We need recycling bins in all classrooms, offices, shopping malls, cafes and train stations – most single-use plastic items are consumed on the go, and the evidence shows that very few people take their rubbish home to recycle it. We need greater public education and provision for the recycling of batteries, televisions, cigarette butts and food waste.
There are many things we can do to be more environmentally-friendly and reduce the amount of plastics in the sea and landfill, without abandoning the use of plastic products. We need plastics and packaging, but it’s what happens after they’ve been used that is the problem. Proper investment in sorting and recycling, in creating a circular economy is the way forward. Rose Brooke at EPPM said:
“By sticking to the principals of designing packaging for recycling, investing in proper kerbside collection, investing in new sorting technology and incentivising the usage of recycled plastic materials, we are going to make the biggest impact in reducing the amount of waste plastic in the environment. Vilifying an entire material and forgetting about the chemical engineering, investment in efficient machinery that has been developed by some of the finest brains on the planet, market research and the reason why all of this has come together in the first place, is being totally forgotten.”