BY KATIE - MYGREENPOD, 10 Jan '20

Plastic is just the tip of the ‘single use’ iceberg, as alternatives potentially cause more harm

Under pressure from the public to act on plastic pollution, companies are on the verge of swapping to other materials with new – and potentially greater – environmental consequences, including higher carbon emissions.

‘Disjointed’ approach to plastic

New research for the Circular Economy Task Force, based on anonymised interviews from leading UK supermarkets and brands, reveals that in the absence of government direction, a disjointed and potentially counterproductive approach to solving plastic pollution is emerging.

More than two years on from the release of Blue Planet II, relatively little has changed, with supermarkets still putting the equivalent of 900 pieces of single-use plastic on the shelf for every person living in the UK every year.

The new report, Plastic promises: what the grocery sector is really doing about packaging, quotes industry insiders, showing that bigger changes are on the way that could have negative consequences, including higher carbon emissions and lower packaging recyclability.

‘The public are right to be outraged about plastic pollution. But what we don’t want is, a few years down the line, for them to be outraged about new environmental problems caused by the alternatives. We need to address the root of the problem, our throwaway society.

‘Companies need much more help from the government to tackle plastic pollution without making climate change and other environmental impacts worse in the process.’

LIBBY PEAKE
Senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance

Biodegradable plastic

A particular concern is compostable or ‘biodegradable’ plastic. Over 80% of consumers think this is environmentally friendly, but there is little understanding of what the terms mean and how the material should be dealt with once used.

Interviewees wanted a clearer approach to where it should be used and how it should be marked to avoid causing more problems.

Confusion, they worried, could potentially harm the environment if people either put ‘compostable’ plastic in with conventional plastic, or litter material, wrongly assuming it will biodegrade in the open environment.

Some companies that had tried using this type of plastic also suggested that material did not degrade as expected in real life conditions.

‘If we aren’t careful, short-term decisions could cause longer term problems for establishing a true circular economy. As the war on plastics continues to rage, avoiding unintended consequences should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and that includes government, industry and, of course, consumers. Change must be managed and planned if we’re to move towards fully closed-loop systems for recycling and, more importantly, reuse.

‘That means we need to think much more carefully (and quickly) about how materials like compostable plastic are introduced. We must ensure a system where they are used where they make sense and in a way that people will understand to limit contamination and leakage.’

ADAM READ
External affairs director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK

Rushed decisions

Single-use plastic is being replaced by other single-use packaging, like paper bags and compostable or wooden cutlery. Businesses admit that these decisions are sometimes being made without fully evaluating the environmental impact of the alternatives.

‘Plastic is devastating to our environment and everything that lives in it. I’ve never seen media coverage of a whale beached and dying with a belly full of paper bags.’

SIAN SUTHERLAND
A Plastic Planet co-founder

Despite shared aims and joint commitments from companies in the grocery sector, individual companies are developing their own policies around plastic to gain competitive advantage which could end up making environmental problems worse.

Perhaps surprisingly, many companies want the government to have a bigger role in directing future developments and setting standards so action is coherent across the industry.