Is swapping plastic packaging for alternatives such as glass or paper bags really the answer?
Consumer-driven demand to reduce the amount of plastic packaging could be contributing to overall environmental degradation and climate change.
A cross-party Parliamentary group has recently published a report highlighting the challenges businesses, governments and society are facing to find an approach that tackles the plastic pollution crisis without increasing other environmental burdens.
Consumers are becoming increasingly proactive in ensuring businesses act more responsibly; as a result, finding ways of using more recycled materials and cutting down on virgin plastic is front of mind. In turn, those businesses are increasingly turning to other materials such as paper and glass, as a readily available alternative packaging material to plastic.
However, these materials can, in fact, have higher carbon emissions which contribute to climate change, than the plastic products they are replacing.
Confusion over the recycling processes
The cross-party parliamentary Group has been working with recycling organisations to investigate plastic waste pollution in the oceans. According to the report, over 80% of consumers think biodegradable or compostable plastic packaging is environmentally friendly. In reality, there is little understanding of how this kind of plastic material should be dealt with, and if it’s a real solution to the plastic waste crisis.
Consumers are confused about the differences between recyclable, bio-based and compostable and the pressure to reduce plastic waste pollution could actually be harming the environment as retailers swap to alternative materials with higher carbon footprints.
Acting on plastic waste pollution
We need to be aware of the unintended consequences reactionary decisions on waste and the complex nature that the many types of plastic can have.
It is important for the Government to consult on changes to environmental policy and for businesses to work in partnership with experts who deal with recycling facilities and recycling schemes, to reduce the risk of increasing environmental burdens and increasing pollution.
The Government recently published it’s resources and waste strategy after conducting initial consultations on three main policies.
- The introduction of a deposit return system for drinks bottles
- Extended producer responsibility for packaging
- Greater consistency for recycling and waste collections
Further, the Governments and policy change EU Directive on Single-Use Plastics includes strict targets on recycling rates, including some bans on plastic items such as single-use plastic cutlery, cotton buds, straws and stirrers. If the UK commits to these targets, the bans will be transposed into local law by 2021.
Outright bans on plastic remain subject to consultations until there is a better understanding of alternative materials and how to process them.
..."48% of 18-34 year old shoppers claim to have switched their regular food brands because of their attitudes to packaging..."
..."over 80% of consumers think biodegradable or compostable plastic packaging is environmentally friendly"...
A holistic view of packaging is required
For example, plastic can be used to increase the life span of food, reducing food waste, energy and waste. Without a ready-made environmentally sound alternative, simply banning plastic might not be the answer to a very complex issue. A recently published report explored how evolving the design, collection and processing of plastic can optimise its environmental and economic potential.
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