Single-use plastics

What is it?

‘Single-use’ was named as Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in November 2018, but there is still discrepancy between industries, nations and businesses as to its specific definition.

Broadly speaking, single-use is a term which can refer to any plastic items which are either designed to be used for one time by the consumer before they are thrown away or recycled, or likely to be used in this way. Such items include disposable cutlery, plastic straws, thin plastic carrier bags, drink stirrers and crisp packets.

Because many of these items are sold or distributed at “on-the-go” venues or events, encouraging consumers to recycle them – and ensuring they are not littered – has been a challenge for businesses historically.

Moreover, many of these items contain either flexible plastic film or black plastic, which are both considered “hard-to-recycle” by many local authorities.

But in the wake of the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 series in 2016, plastic waste has been predicted to become more important to shoppers than product pricing in the near future, as public awareness around issues of ocean pollution and littering increase.

The latest WRAP figures state that 3.7 million tonnes of plastic are thrown away in the UK each year, with 32% recycled and 30% littered. Amid heightened consumer concerns, plastic packaging and plastic drinks bottles are now the two plastic items which experience the highest recycling rates, at 76% and 78% respectively.

Why use these plastics? What are the challenges and what are the benefits?

Several big-name companies have moved to phase-out single-use plastic items from their operations since the start of 2017, with some – including Morrisons and Iceland – citing consumer demand as their main driver for doing so.

However, sustainability experts including Committee on Climate Change chair Lord Deben have warned that we are now entering an era where shoppers will demand plastic-free items without considering why the material has been used, with common benefits of its use including protection from damage in transit and prevention of food waste through product life extension.

For example, a wrapped cucumber will last an average of three days longer than an unwrapped one, retaining 2% more of its weight in the process due to reduced evaporation. Elsewhere, health companies continue to cite difficulty removing single-use plastic packaging used to keep surgical equipment sterile and medicine in good condition, while several disabled consumers have claimed they rely on single-use plastic straws and wet wipes in their day-to-day lives.

Plastic has also historically been a safer and cheaper alternative to paper, glass or cardboard for many companies, with online sportswear retailer Surfdome having seen its packaging costs increase by 110% since pledging to go plastic-free.

Traditional plastics are made using fossil fuels and are therefore a finite resource. With the world now producing more than twice as much plastic as it did in 1998, resource scarcity fears are beginning to loom for the plastics industry. Not enough, however, to prevent the sector from increasing in value every year since 2010, setting it on a trajectory to reach $654bn in 2020.

The challenges associated with continued plastic use are therefore more likely to be social and environmental than financial. With around 12 million tonnes of plastics entering waterways and oceans around the world each year, conservationists are increasingly tending to animals dying of starvation because their stomachs are too full of plastic to find food. Scientists are currently trying to determine how plastic in water and seafood could be affecting public health, with microplastics having been found in human stools for the first time in 2018. Such trends are leading corporates to take action – oftentimes at a cost to their business – in order to retain or regain consumer trust.

What is the policy landscape like for plastics?

In the UK, several policies aimed at reducing public reliance on single-use plastics by encouraging behaviour change have been implemented in recent years. The implementation of a 5p charge for plastic bags in 2015 has led to an 86% reduction in the number of carrier bags distributed in England, with the average resident purchasing 121 fewer bags in 2018 than 2015.

Following the success of this charge, the Government is now consulting on whether the charge should be raised to 10p and extended to include SMEs, which are currently exempt if they have fewer than 250 employees. Similarly, a Government-led ban on the use of microbeads in rinse-off care products came into force in 2018.

Read more: IHG commits to global phase-out of plastic straws

Elsewhere, ministers recently consulted on the introduction of a deposit return scheme to improve the recycling of plastic drinks bottles and containers – a move which has received backing from the likes of Tesco, the Co-op and Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP). In Germany, such a scheme was implemented in 2003, and drinks bottle recycling rates now stand at 99%.

A further consultation, which closed in December 2018, aims to help ministers explore how best to design policies that will lead to a UK-wide ban on the sale and distribution of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds by 2020. Prime Minister Theresa May said the moves would help the UK become a leader in resource management, building on the aims of her Government’s 25-year Environment Plan. As part of that plan, the Government plans to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

More widely, Defra is expected to include increased rates of tax on businesses using virgin plastics and tax breaks for manufacturers using recycled content in its new Resources and Waste Strategy (RWS), which is due for publication before the end of 2018. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has also confirmed that the RWS will include specific measures to tackle single-use plastics.

However, Chancellor Philip Hammond’s 2018 Budget included a decision to rule out a 25p “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups, which typically include plastic lining and a plastic lid. While supporters of the levy have argued that it could help policymakers drive a resource-efficient economy, others have claimed that it would lead to reduced sales at on-the-go food businesses, resulting in a loss of jobs.

Outside of the UK, the European Parliament recently backed a wide-ranging ban on single-use plastics in an effort to tackle pollution in seas, fields and waterways. The directive, which has been described as a “clampdown on the top 10 plastic products that most often end up in the ocean”, requires items including straws, cotton swabs, disposable plastic plates and cutlery to be banned across the EU by 2021. Member nations have also been urged to implement policies which will boost plastic bottle recycling rates to 90% by 2025.

What role can the business community play in the war on single-use plastics?

With consumer goods and packaging accounting for the vast majority of the UK’s single-use plastic output, campaign groups and consumers are increasingly calling for retailers – rather than policymakers or consumers – to lead the charge towards resource efficiency in this field.

The onus has largely fallen on the UK’s supermarket and food and drinks sectors, which Greenpeace claims put 810,000 tonnes of single-use plastic packaging on to the market every year. This is in addition to more than 1.1 billion single-use bags and 958 million bags for life.

Read more: University of Leeds unveils plan to become ‘plastic-free’ by 2023 

This has led to a flurry of action from the UK’s seven largest supermarket groups, with brands moving to discontinue 5p bags altogether, remove hard-to-recycle black plastic from their products and phase out the sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds in favour of paper-based alternatives.

Elsewhere, businesses across the travel, leisure, hospitality, events and sports industries have moved at a pace to remove plastic straws or stirrers from their internal and customer-facing operations.

Aside from implementing standalone bans, businesses seeking to reduce their single-use plastic footprint can also do so by aligning their purpose or sustainability strategies with Sustainable Development Goal 12, responsible production and consumption, and 14, life below water – as has been the case for firms like Bunzl Catering Supplies and Canary Wharf Group.

Corporates have additionally proven the case for collaboration in this field, with 68 UK businesses joining WRAP’s Plastic Pact and 250 organisations signing up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy scheme.


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