The topic of plastic waste and its environmental impact has rocketed up the political agenda in the last few weeks. Blue Planet II alerted the public to the impact of our waste plastics on the oceans and the life in them. Everything from tiny microplastic fragments being concentrated up the food chain to large pieces entangling and choking larger marine animals and birds.
At the same time, China has banned importing many types of plastic waste for recycling. This has raised the issue in the public mind – “what actually happens to all the plastic waste we carefully separate out for recycling?”.
At the beginning of 2018, the UK Government published “A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment”. In their public announcements, The Prime Minister and other Ministers focused on their plan to eliminate “avoidable plastic waste” by 2042 and to introduce “plastic-free supermarket aisles” in which all food is loose.
Our use of plastics, in particular the impact of single-use plastics and what we might do about it, is now part of public debate.
Excellent! It is a real problem and we need solutions.
The problem is that people are reaching for simple and easy to understand solutions: get rid of food packaging, only use biodegradable materials, recycle locally, increase charges for single-use bags, bottles and coffee cups …
Simple, direct, active solutions that look great.
Why it is not a simple problem
Yes packaging waste is a real issue for the marine environment, but there are other sources as well. 640,000 tons of plastic goes into the oceans each year as ‘ghost gear’; fishing lines and nets lost or dumped overboard.
We are dealing with materials that are totally entwined in the way we live our lives, with complex and interlocking supply chains. And we need to make sure that tackling plastic pollution does not make another problem worse; for example, climate change.
These are system challenges, and everyone hates those because they are so hard to handle. We like to solve the problem in front of us and are not good at seeing or forestalling unintended consequences.
“I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” Ben Goldacre
For example, most consumers think that in environmental terms food packaging is a bigger problem than food waste. So people rail against ‘excess’ food packaging whilst throwing out huge quantities of food. Of 10 million tonnes food wasted in the UK:
- 7.3 million tonnes (73%) lost in the home;
- 1.7 million tonnes in food manufacturing;
- 0.9 million tonnes in hospitality and food service;
- 0.25 million tonnes in retail.
That is a huge environmental footprint in CO2, water and land use. Cutting food packaging does not improve the situation, it is likely to make it worse. A study from 2000  showed that for a given packaging material and product, there is an optimum weight and design of packaging that an gives an adequate performance with the lowest weight. Below this optimum packaging weight, environmental impacts increase through damage and loss of product in the supply chain and in use.
So supermarket packaging is an attractively simple target, but if we are really interested in reducing environmental footprint rather than attacking plastic packaging as the environmental scourge, we must look at the whole system.
OK – let’s reduce food miles, use locally grown food, and then we won’t need packaging to reduces losses in the supply chain.
Over time maybe, but you are asking to change the diet of the whole population and that is not easy or quick. People may be switching to vegetarian and vegan diets as a response to environmental threats, but that growth is largely in the developed world and they are still dependent on a global food supply chain.
Can’t we use biodegradable packaging?
Well then, how about only using biodegradable materials for packaging? A few problems.
We don’t yet have the range of biodegradable materials yet that can meet all our packaging requirements. More research and development is needed.
Production of bioplastics is still quite low. 2017 production was estimated at about 2 million tonnes, as against global plastics production of over 300 million tonnes; less than 1%. Nearly 60% of that was for non-biodegradable bioplastics where the aim was to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. This is being scaled up, but there is the risk of competition with food production if we move too quickly. The history of making alcohol as a fuel from maize or sugar cane, and biodiesel from plant oils has been controversial, with many concerns about overall environmental impact.
In waste disposal we need to be able to segregate biodegradable plastics from recyclable. Otherwise contamination of the recycle stream will reduce usability and value. Can we trust consumers to do this? Mixing up what is recyclable and what is not in the household waste stream is already a problem. Automatic sorting is important, but not yet accurate or reliable enough.
Just sort out recycling!
Can we recycle more? This diagram from a 2016 WRAP report shows what happens to plastic packaging waste in the UK.
It shows that 38% of the waste goes into recycling, and of that 39% is recycled in the UK. That’s actually better than I thought, and better than often represented in the media. We should certainly do better, but not bad.
The problem is that use of recycled plastics is extremely sensitive to global commodity plastic prices, and so to oil and gas prices. Users can switch supply easily, and recyclers can have profit margins wiped out overnight. At least one significant UK recycler included in these figures has closed due to lower oil prices making them uncompetitive.
This volatility in prices makes it difficult to set up and sustain a circular economy in packaging. Everyone who invests in collection, separation, recycling and remanufacture is making a bet, and potentially an expensive bet, on the future price of oil. Few in the plastics recycling industry have deep enough pockets to trade through a significant drop in commodity prices in the hope that they will be profitable in the long-term.
Innovation will help the whole supply chain to become more efficient, but support is also needed. The cost increase to consumers of using packaging with greater recycled content is trivial; so there is no inflation or societal argument against it:
- Governments can mandate recycled content in packaging;
- Governments can drive up the cost of disposal to make recycling more attractive;
- Production levies can be charged to help develop the recycling industry, as is already done in many other sectors;
- Large end-users, such as supermarkets and food processors can specify a certain level of recycled content.
It is difficult but doable!
This is not a counsel of despair, just realism. We can do it, but it won’t be quick.
Actions aimed at changing consumer behaviour can be implemented immediately. Extending the charge on single-use plastic bags, and introducing one on disposable coffee cups and water bottles makes sense.
But that needs to be coupled with longer-term actions.
- Increased R&D on recycling techniques to better separate and handle mixtures of plastics;
- Increased R&D on bioplastics to scale up production without conflicting with food production, and to develop new biodegradable materials with the right properties for the demands of packaging;
- Better design of packaging to reduce complexity in the recycle chain. Using fewer primary materials and fewer composites;
- Policy support to recycling through mandates on recycled content and/or price support mechanisms so that a developing recycling industry is not vulnerable to fluctuations in the oil price;
“The New Plastics Economy“ is a recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that looks into the challenge and the opportunities in detail. Looking at the problem through the lens of the circular economy it stresses the importance of considering whole industries and supply chains. The need for a lot of innovation, but also the economic opportunities that are available.
It does not fall into the trap of thinking that a few focused interventions can make the problem go away.
 “PACKAGING- a tool for the prevention of environmental impact” L Erlöv, C
Löfgren and A Sörås, Packforsk, Report 194, 2000