Lord Deben: Businesses must avoid ‘knee-jerk’ plastic phase-outs

Committee on Climate Change (CCC) chairman Lord Deben has urged companies to avoid making "knee-jerk" decisions on plastics packaging, warning that "reactionary" choices to consumer demands could lead to unintended environmental consequences.

Speaking at the Packaging Innovations conference in London last week, Deben told hundreds of packaging industry professionals that there was “no silver bullet” to replacing single-use plastics which would appease both consumers and policymakers in the short term while generating long-term sustainability benefits.

Specifically, Deben argued that sustainability professionals were likely to replace their company’s plastic packaging ranges with “potentially disastrous” alternatives due to a lack of clear policy guidance on the best solutions to the plastic problem.

“Even the best of Governments is never properly joined up and always has to be dealt with in bits, which we tend to forget,” the former Environment Secretary said. “Without an integrated answer, people go rushing after what seems to be an easy solution. They think there is a silver bullet when, of course, it isn’t like that.” 

“It’s very easy to make knee-jerk decisions and to catch the headlines and, therefore, to decide to do things that simply don’t work. Plastic and packaging, on the whole, are there for a reason and have been an essential part of the overall change that we have seen in our lifestyles.”

Lord Deben was speaking as part of a plastic-themed discussion at the event, where experts from the packaging industry and retailers addressed ways to improve the recyclability of plastics – which has had a 9% recycling rate globally since the 1950s.

The Food Service Packaging Association’s director Martin Kersch echoed Deben’s sentiments, explaining that retailers moving to ban single-use plastic products and packaging are putting themselves at risk of greenwashing by investing in solutions which have equally negative environmental repercussions.

Kersch cited the example of Morrison’s, which was recently criticised for replacing single-use plastic bags in fruit and vegetable aisles with paper alternatives after a report by the Environment Agency concluded that paper bags would need to be re-used at least three times to avoid having a higher impact on climate change than plastic equivalents.

“I have a lot of respect for the growing number of blue-chip companies which are taking their time while going through potential solutions – they are not avoiding the issue, they are just making sure that what they do will make a long-term difference,” Kersch added.

Compostable challenges

Among these companies in this category is Sainsbury’s, which has a headline packaging goal of reducing volumes of own-brand packaging by 50% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. 

As a founder member of WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact, Sainsbury’s has committed to eliminate single-use packaging through redesign by 2025.

The Pact also requires the supermarket to ensure that 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by the same deadline – but according to Sainsbury’s’ head of packaging Jane Skelton, these targets have not been enough to appease plastic-conscious consumers.

“We used to get around 230 letters a week about plastic because we have very vocal customers, but after Blue Planet 2, 9,000 people wrote in a week,” Skelton said.

“They have not stopped – it is a constant concern and we have to keep telling our customers why we need to use plastic to protect products. Plastic is not evil – it is absolutely necessary, and we need it to protect products as they move through our supply chains.”

Skelton addressed why Sainsbury’s has not moved to incorporate compostable alternatives or bioplastics into its own-brand packaging. She noted there was “work to be done” by packaging firms, waste and resource management companies and policymakers before biodegradable or compostable materials could become mainstream in supermarkets.

“At the moment, if we put compostable packaging in with recyclable packaging it will cause waste management companies a huge amount of problems, so putting compostable packaging directly onto the market is going to be a bit of a challenge,” she explained.

“In terms of biodegradable packaging, we don’t really know what the unintended consequences are at the moment because I have seen only alternatives that, unfortunately, are not completely degradable.”

Skelton’s sentiments were echoed by health and beauty product manufacturer Church & Dwight’s senior packaging technologist Paul Day, who added that biodegradable and compostable materials often react with health and beauty products, making them unsuitable to house some of the company’s toothpaste, soap and cleaning product ranges.

Day also claimed that the company was yet to find a compostable or biodegradable alternative with identical moulding and manufacturing capabilities to regular plastics, meaning the company would be unable to meet its manufacturing efficiency goals.

Another concern surrounding the term “biodegradable”, which was raised by Skelton, Kersch and Coca-Cola’s vice president for public affairs Julian Hunt, was the potential for misinterpretation by consumers.

Both Skelton and Kersch said the term could serve as an “open invitation for littering” among customers, which could lead to packaging dropped freely in public places under the false belief that it would quickly degrade.

“We are still at a point where there is always a caveat, a design constraint or another unknown,” Hunt added. “During beverage packaging debates I do get quite anxious at some of the claims I see. For example, I was once pitched a bottle that could allegedly dissolve in seawater, which sounded fantastic except for the fact that the seawater had to be at a constant temperature of 27C.”

Recycled resource streams

Nonetheless, Hunt said that these caveats would not stop Coca-Cola from “constantly re-thinking” its approach to packaging as new technologies emerge.

The beverage giant recently introduced a number of new packaging measures, including an aim to collect one bottle or can for every one it sells, in a bid to recycle the equivalent of all of its packaging by 2030. It has also set a 2030 goal to make plastic bottles with an average of 50% recycled content, up from its current rate of 7%.

Hunt was asked whether he believed that corporate demand for recycled PET (rPET) would soon outstrip the supply available in the UK. Indeed, a string of companies including Harrogate WaterPrinces and The Co-op have all moved to source more rPET for their bottles in recent months.

Hunt concluded that such a situation would be “very likely”, but that this would be a “good thing” by encouraging policymakers and resource and waste management firms to make moves to co-create quality resource streams and implement circular economy principles.

Sarah George

Comments (4)

  1. Iain Beveridge says:

    Looks like a lot of pro-plastics spin to me. The morrisons example misses the point by a country mile – it’s not just about the ‘impact on climate change’ but the pollution of the environment. Surely fully recyclable and/or bio-degradable solutions are to be welcomed? …albeit with something of a balancing act on the pollution front (emissions being only one form of pollution). As for responding to customer demand for less environmentally damaging packaging & plastics – again I don’t see the issue. Surely the more canny operator would see that as a huge carrot, rather than bemoaning being pushed by regulatory sticks.

  2. simon wildash says:

    Great to see some sanity in the reporting of the issues surrounding packaging and the consequences of poor decisions being made to simply meet the narrative being fed to the public that all plastics are bad. Plastic is often the most sustainable form of packaging and protects the goods we buy throughout the supply chain.

    It is recyclable and should be viewed in the same way that we see other materials and collected as such. The issues are littering globally – irrespective of the material – and the lack of waste management in many countries. Focus on dealing with these and we would make a much bigger impact on reducing our impact on the environment.

  3. Steve Bolter says:

    Removing unnecessary layers of packaging and design for easy reuse or recycling is unlikely to cause problems, but I agree that kneejerk reactions involving new materials can be counterproductive

  4. Dave Stanley says:

    Remind me – what was the % waste in the food chain in the 1960s preplastic and % waste today?

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