It has been known for some time that we have a plastics problem. In fact, plastic pollution in the oceans was first reported 50 years ago. Since then the magnitude of the problem has grown exponentially. Sadly, we’ve remained addicted to plastics and been unable to mobilise to solve the problem, with devastating consequences.
This weekend the world lamented the death of a pilot whale who starved having swallowed 80 plastic bags. Amidst the increasingly common stories of tragedy and the media storm that now surrounds the topic of plastics, the atmosphere is beginning to feel different. The playing field is changing.
With effect this year, China has banned imports of foreign waste meaning the rest of the world can no longer export their plastic problem. In the UK, the broadcast of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, represented a pivotal moment that brought the realities of plastic impacts on our marine environments crashing into our homes and reverberating across social media. Businesses are starting to feel the heat from consumers and NGOs expecting action, and Governments are finally beginning to rally. For example, the EU is fast working on an Act to ensure that every piece of packaging is recyclable or reusable by 2030 and even considering a ban on virgin plastics altogether.
THE CHALLENGES OF PLASTIC
Simply abandoning plastics poses significant challenges. Challenges that until now have seemed too difficult to overcome and hindered our ability to progress. We discus three major obstacles and how attitudes to them are changing.
Our reliance on plastics has been justified in the name of food waste prevention. Despite this, approximately 88 million tonnes of food are wasted every year in the EU. A recent study by the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP) found that plastic packaging has a more complicated relationship with food waste than assumed, and in some ways could actually be increasing it. Branding was found to be the biggest driver of packaging choices in producers, and excess packaging for multi-packs seems to be causing consumers to buy more than they need and use.
The IEEP call for measures to incentivise behavioural change that aim to avoid both plastic and food waste simultaneously, such as increasing the responsibility of producers with charges, deposit refund schemes and possibly a progressive tax on virgin plastics. This is developing a view that divorcing ourselves from plastic need not mean an increase in food waste.
ENERGY EFFICIENCY & COST
It’s ..crucial that we don’t see action as a cost, but rather an investment that will spare us huge negative externalities – the hidden costs that we are only beginning to understand the scale of – over the coming years, Eric Solheim, World Economic Forum.
Plastic’s lightweight properties and efficient production has so far been unbeatable in terms of emissions and cost efficiencies. This poses a problem to businesses who are struggling to reconcile the pressure to ditch plastics with the pressure to be a cost effective, energy efficient and profitable business. However, campaigners are pointing out that CO₂ emissions and even cost can be offset. The damage that plastics do to our environment and to marine eco-systems cannot.
At Edie Live in Birmingham, Adam Hall from Surfdome revealed how his company had found cost-saving opportunities elsewhere that helped to offset the increased cost of packaging their products in boxes as opposed to plastic poly-bags eliciting huge support from customers. This is not to say that every business will be able to find enough cost to offset alternatives to plastics or their larger footprints, but it shows businesses are starting to find ways around it and recognising the value of investing in action.
Alternatives are not always going to be viable. We need to facilitate a more circular economy for the plastics that are necessary in our value chains and we are going to need a significant shake-up in infrastructure to enable this. Most pressingly in terms of clearer labelling for consumers about materials and recyclability, and less fragmented recycling infrastructure. Businesses, particularly supermarkets, are beginning to lead the call for reform.
An alliance of supermarkets have already started using a ‘Plastics Free’ label on some packaged products to assist consumers to make informed choices about packaging. In addition to this, facing the heat from consumers on their overuse of plastic, Tesco have publicly called on the UK government to assist them by creating better recycling infrastructure. If the EU passes its Act on recyclable packaging, then achieving its goals will be dependent on governing bodies answering this call (as will the more immediate consequences of China’s decision).
THE Perfect Storm?
There is no doubt the challenge of plastics is a difficult one. However, the consequences of our reliance on plastics are now impossible to ignore and gaining widespread attention. This and the changing global context have sparked new discussions and invigorated efforts to find solutions. Could this be the perfect storm to finally turn the tide on plastics?
A few examples of the many innovative alternatives to plastic:
- AGRICULTURAL WASTE - tomato punnets made from the leaves of the tomatoes are helping to reduce up to 3.5 million plastic punnets annual at Waitrose.
- GRASS PAPER & BOARD - an innovative alternative, that won sustainability packaging product of the year last year.
- FUNGUS - as unappealing as this might sound now, researchers are currently using it to create a replacement to rival the versatility of plastic.
- ALGAE - Could this be the next miracle product? Feedback says the water pouches recently making headlines are a little impractical, but the possibilities are exciting
- ALUMINIUM - Far from a new innovation. However, 70% of cans already use recycled material, this is because of the inherent recyclability of this old classic.
- ALUMI-TEK BOTTLES - Portable, durable and recyclable. They have the properties of an aluminium can with all the benefits of a a bottle.
Image credit: John Cancalosi