Lifecycle approach required: Government’s plastics policies could triple UK packaging emissions

The UK Government's ban on unnecessary single-use plastics could inadvertently triple the carbon emissions associated with packaging, unless policies are introduced to prioritise an "overall need to use less material" and to improve the energy efficiency associated with material production and recycling.

Lifecycle approach required: Government’s plastics policies could triple UK packaging emissions

All materials used for packaging consumed in the UK account for 1.7% of the country’s total emissions 

The think tank Green Alliance’s new report, published today (10 March), has warned that the UK’s focus on banning single-use plastic items as part of a “piecemeal approach” to plastics pollution could lead to unintended consequences. The think tank claims current legislation could lead to plastics being replaced with equally unnecessary single-use items, rather than promoting durability and reuse.

While the report notes the need to combat plastic leakage and microplastic breakdown into the natural environment, it warns that merely replacing one single-use material with another, even if that material can be used over and over, won’t address broader environmental concerns.

The Green Alliance’s Circular Economy Taskforce commissioned PwC to provide estimates of the carbon emissions associated with replacing single-use plastic items, such as straws and bags, with other materials still designed for single use. PwC found that switching the UK’s current plastic packaging of 1.6 million tonnes for other materials like glass, aluminium or paper could triple the associated carbon emissions from 1.7 billion tonnes CO2e to 4.8 billion tonnes CO2e.

The Green Alliance’s head of resource policy Libby Peake said: “Removing one material from a dysfunctional system still leaves us with a dysfunctional system. Plastic pollution is a particularly visible sign that we don’t properly value the resources we use and shows that environmental harm is hardwired into the throwaway culture. The government has to get to the root of the problem to change this, rather than only tackling high profile symptoms in a piecemeal way.”

All materials used for packaging consumed in the UK account for 1.7% of the country’s total emissions – compared to 6% for aviation, for example. Aluminium is the most carbon-intensive product to produce, buts its durability and recyclability help reduce lifecycle impacts in the long-term. Improving the energy efficiency of the manufacturing process for aluminium would also create additional carbon savings. The Green Alliance is calling for all manufacturing and recycling processes to be bettered through energy efficiency measures.

In 2018, paper and card were accountable for more emissions in the UK than any other material. While this is attributable to the material’s market share, the global market for paper straws is growing by almost 14% annually. McDonald’s in the UK uses 1.8 million straws each day and the report claims that they can’t be recycled and are not needed by most adults.

The report warns that like for like replacements could lead to further environmental impacts. Water use and pollution could increase, for example, as aluminium uses more water on a per kg basis. In fact, paper production used the most water of all packaging alternatives, due to the fact that it accounts for 45% of the market share.

Potential health impacts are also raised in the report. While there is already public concern about the use of phthalates in plastics, the Green Alliance notes that “forever chemicals” like Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are used to improve water resistance in paper, card and compostable material and could pose similar health issues.

Rather than replacing single-use plastics with other materials designed for just one use, the think tank is calling for the Government to implement policies that incentivise the design of products for durability and repairability, ahead of reuse and recycling, in order to minimise material use overall.

Policy plans

The Government has committed to “work towards” ensuring all plastic packaging placed on the market is recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025, as well as eliminating all “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042.

The recently resurfaced Environment Bill is also set to implement charges for single-use plastic items. However, the Green Alliance expressed concern that charges would not apply for other alternatives that would likely only be used once.

The Government’s proposed tax on packaging that has less than 30% recycled content, which is likely to come into force by 2022, is also “unlikely to drastically increase ambition”, according to the report. The UK Plastics Pact is already targeting an average of 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging by 2025 and the report claims that increasing legislative ambitions will help spur the market. The legislation also runs the risk of encouraging multinational companies to shift production of packaging abroad, which would, therefore, be excluded from charges.

The Green Alliance is calling for a “systemic approach” to packaging that ensures that all resources “are used sustainably and that environmental harm is minimised” by focusing on lifecycle impacts. Plastic production, for example, could be improved through greater electrification and renewable energy procurement that could cut lifecycle carbon impacts by up to 75%, the report notes.

The report also warns of the introduction of “novel materials”, such as compostable or bio-based, before impacts are fully understood and the correct systems are in place to handle them.

The same applies to new recycling technologies, especially chemical processes. The report argues that keeping material in the circular economy at its highest value would require the development of a revamped recycling hierarchy that “prioritises mechanical recycling ahead of these novel technologies, as it uses the least energy”. Chemical depolymerisation and thermal cracking would only occur when the material has degraded beyond a certain point.

Piecemeal approach

The Government’s “piecemeal” approach to plastic bans is evident in abundance. The report notes that the UK’s ban on microbeads introduced in June 2018 accounts for less than 10% of the microplastics that seep into the natural environment. The EU estimates that “total intentionally added microplastic pollution” from Europe is around 36,000 tonnes a year – microbeads from cosmetic wash offs covered by the UK ban account for just 8.8% of this figure.

The piecemeal approach can also be seen in replacement materials that are being prioritised. The Green Alliance report noted that the Houses of Parliament switched to compostable packaging in October 2018. However, all the materials collected in dedicated composting bins in the first six months were sent to incineration because of contamination.

To avoid these consequences, the report recommends a set of “guiding principles” for new materials and new models like reuse that include firming out delivery systems from products, consumer incentivisation and ensuring material use does not increase, which is a risk for repeat purchases of items like “bags for life”.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, by converting 20% of global disposable plastic packaging to reuse models, businesses could generate £7.5bn in new market opportunities.

Matt Mace

Comments (1)

  1. Keiron Shatwell says:

    A classic example of "the Road to Hell being paved with Good Intentions"

    Until we factor in the total energy, resource and emission costs to everything this kind of thing will continue to happen.

    Another example is biomass wood pellets, are they truly "green" when you factor in the amount of petrol used for chainsaws, diesel for haulage and handling equipment then transportation from forest to sawmill (with associated wear and tear on roads), energy needed by the sawmill then transportation of pellets etc to final place of use. When pellets are shipped across oceans in large oil burning cargo ships they become even less green.

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