The Big Business Plastics Debate (Part One): Are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Over two days at edie Live 2019, sustainability and resource efficiency experts from across the country gathered for the Big Plastics Debate - a live, on-stage panel discussion about the drivers, challenges and opportunities behind eliminating single-use plastics. Here, we summarise the first part of what was a highly provocative discussion.

Two expert panels discussions outlined how the debate on plastics has moved on from target setting to holistic action

Two expert panels discussions outlined how the debate on plastics has moved on from target setting to holistic action

Our chair, Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) chief executive Paul Vanston, set the scene for the Big Plastics Debate with an interesting comparison; likening the current scramble to ditch single-use plastics to the ongoing furore surrounding the UK’s exit from the EU.

“Over the past 18 months, the plastics discussion has felt a little bit like Brexit,” Vanston said. “It’s become very binary – you’re either a leaver, or you are a remainer; there’s no in-between. With plastics, you’re either for or against.”

The recent flurry of plastics-related documentaries – from Sky Ocean Rescue to Blue Planet via Drowning in Plastics – has placed the large majority of consumers in the ‘against’ camp when it comes to plastics. Indeed, 82% of UK shoppers now believe the amount of plastic packaging needs to be “drastically reduced”, while 57% view plastic pollution as the single greatest threat to the environment in the modern era.

This surge in demand for radical action to reduce plastics has placed business in a somewhat precarious position. Collaborative initiatives such as the UK Plastics Pact have welcomed a large number of paying corporates seeking solutions that will accelerate the transition away from single-use plastics. But moving too quickly on the issue could well cause trade-offs or unintended consequences.

Plastics pollution has been in national headlines for almost two years now, and it remains one of the few subjects of great national interest that have united MPs who are otherwise fractured over Brexit. But, as our edie Live panel began to discuss, the plastics debate has changed since the wave of momentum began, and a more nuanced conversation is starting to emerge.

“Plastics aren’t an evil product,” Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) senior marine project manager Fiona Llewellyn said. “It’s an amazing product that has changed our lives for the better in so many ways. The trouble is its durability. When we talk about throwing plastics away, there is no away, it’s always somewhere. Bottles are one of the most common items found in the ocean. They are the flagship species for ocean plastics pollution and are a gateway to engaging people with other environmental issues and the misuse of plastics.”

Spurred by conservation projects which ensure that “wildlife thrives and where humans and animals can live cohesively”, Llewellyn and ZSL have seen first-hand the devastating impact that plastics can have on the natural environment, notably marine ecosystems where plastics could outweigh fish by 2050. It is this rather distressing narrative that has seemingly ignited consumer demands for alternatives, and ZSL has been keen to trial city-wide action to combat the issue. The Society, in partnership with Marine Collaboration, has used the #OneLess campaign to galvanise businesses, policymakers, NGOs and the public to reduce single-use water bottles in the city of London. The average London adult buys 3.37 plastic water bottles every week – equivalent to more than one billion per year on a city level. 

Llewellyn’s comments that plastics aren’t evil was a mirrored by numerous other speakers during edie Live’s Big Plastics Debate, with the experts pointing to unsustainable behaviours, poor infrastructure, bad design and prohibitive policy as the less immediately obvious causes of plastics pollution.

To this point, hospitality provider BaxterStorey’s head of sustainable business Mike Hanson noted that he is anti-litter rather than anti-plastic and that consumerism in general is in need of a massive overhaul, not only to reduce virgin resource use, but to “better articulate the value” of materials such as plastic. Instead, Hanson said that the current engagement and interest on the issue can be used as a springboard to start conversations that address some of the major causes of plastics pollution – namely the aforementioned issues of design, behaviour and infrastructure.

“There is no single solution, no magic bullet to combatting plastics,” Hanson said. “You need to focus on design, resource efficiency and waste management and tap into the current enthusiasm. We have a great opportunity and now is the perfect storm, awareness is absolutely massive, and we need to make fundamental change.

“But we also need to recognise that plastic has a huge role to play. We need to understand what we’re using and if we have the right waste stream for it. What we replace single-use plastics with can have a larger impact on society, on the environment and on cost, but we are at danger of almost throwing the baby out with the bathwater because the impact of an alternative could be far higher.”

Unintended consequences

Hanson used plastic’s interdependent relationship with food as a prime example where any changes to the packaging – which are much quicker for businesses and policymakers to introduce compared to infrastructure – could cause net-negative results. Some retailers have taken steps to remove shrink wrapping from loose produce ranges, but Hanson pointed out that this type of packaging helps increase the shelf life of cucumbers from three days to 14. These “knee-jerk” approaches to the issue could create more problems than solutions across the environmental spectrum, Hanson said.

This sentiment was echoed to some extent by Waitrose’s head of CSR, agriculture and health Tor Harris. On plastics, Waitrose has committed to a 2025 goal of making all its own-brand packaging is either recyclable, reusable or home compostable and has banned the sale of single-use plastic straws and disposable coffee cups in all of its UK stores, following earlier phase-outs of products such as plastic-stemmed cotton buds and microbead-based health and beauty lines. It has additionally pledged to remove black plastic, which is notoriously hard-to-recycle, from all own-brand products by the end of 2019. But alongside this, the retailer has pledged its support for a joint commitment to halve food waste outputs by 2030, in line with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A key aspect of this commitment is ensuring that fresh produce does not go to waste – so, packaging that extends shelf-life is only becoming more important for the retailer.

For Harris, the current furore around plastics has created an opportunity for the retailer to “push the boundaries” on what can be achieved in reducing single-use plastics, provided it doesn’t create trade-offs for food waste. 

“The reason we use plastics is to protect quality and prolong shelf life for food,” Harris said. “We have to weigh up the environmental benefits of the packaging against the environmental benefits of prolonging the shelf life of a product so that we or a customer don’t end up throwing it away. We are going to be taking packaging off some items to see where we can push the boundaries and remove it without any negative impact on food waste or quality.”

Waitrose’s balanced approach to plastics has seen it home in on “problem” plastics in the first instance, such as single-use items and black plastics. As such, the firm is now trialling fibre-based packaging across its range of Italian ready meals. These will replace the black plastic trays currently used for three of its Italian ready meal products with the alternative material, which it claims is 100% FSC-certified and widely recyclable. Harris also noted that some plastic replacements are still too costly for businesses to implement. Citing coffee cups, she claimed that it is relatively easy economic shift from disposable to reusable variants, but that introducing refill stations at shops “is a much different conversation” – although Waitrose is looking to introduce refill stations at locations where refurbishing and retrofitting has been scheduled.

The panel discussion seemed to be in a consensus, then, that rapid moves away from certain plastics could create unintended consequences in the near future. Could it be that, in 10 years’ time, we are debating the use of field crops for packaging when land use for food becomes strained, or whether biodegradable and oxy-degradable are, in fact, forms of greenwash? And, as Part Two of the Big Plastics Debate goes onto explore, there is a huge societal aspect to the conversation which must also be considered.

---Read the Big Plastics Debate Part Two here ---

Matt Mace



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