Plastics packaging phase-outs leading to environmental consequences, report warns

A new report from the Green Alliance has shown the companies are under "considerable and justified pressure" to move away from single-use plastics, often at the expense of carbon impacts and recyclability of alternative materials.

Plastics packaging phase-outs leading to environmental consequences, report warns

The report notes that interviewees felt that not all changes to remove or replace single-use plastics had been considered through the lens of additional environmental impacts

The new Green Alliance report is based on interviews from representatives from five unnamed major UK supermarkets and five consumer goods and beverage companies. It finds that there is “not a lot of joined-up thinking going on” as to how companies remove single-use plastics in a way that doesn’t generate unintended consequences.

Interviewees told the Green Alliance that consumer pressure was a huge driver of change, but that the demands were undefined and often failed to translate into better purchasing habits.

“It’s been mostly complaints, saying that plastic is evil and has no place, regardless of any positives it might have in addressing food waste and whatnot,” one interviewee claimed. “It’s been ferocious. We’ve seen an 800% uplift in customer queries in the last year alone.”

Carbon impacts

The report notes that interviewees felt that not all changes to remove or replace single-use plastics had been considered through the lens of additional environmental impacts and increased carbon footprints.

One supermarket representative said: “We are aware that [by switching from plastic to other materials] we may, in some cases, be increasing our carbon footprint.”

There was concern amongst the respondents that a lack of an “agreed methodology” for assessing material impacts was causing confusion as to whether plastics would function better than glass or paper in some cases.

The report also noted that brand decision to increase the use of recycled content in packaging or switch to alternative materials had not considered whether there were adequate collection and treatment infrastructure in place.

One respondent noted “the lack of sources of recycled content [which] causes a bottleneck and therefore drives the price up significantly” as a cost barrier to incorporating recycled content.

Reuse models

According to surveys by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency, UK supermarkets put at least 59 billion items of single-use plastic packaging into the market annually, averaging out at 900 pieces per UK resident. The New Plastics Economy has since found that just 3% of packaging is designed for reuse.

The Green Alliance report notes that refill models, such as the ones championed by Waitrose and the Body Shop were proving popular amongst brands, but concern was expressed that these models still shorten shelf lives for certain products. According to an interviewee, some fresh drinks would last just two days in a refill system, compared to 20 to 30 days in a factory sealed container.

Alternative materials

The Green Alliance report features a reference to a Grocer survey of more than 1,00 consumers, which found that the majority think that plant-based compostables should be prioritised by brands, ahead of paper, glass, cardboard, conventional plastic and aluminium.

Interviewees noted that there are “huge confusion concerns” for brands, noting the need to balance consumer demand – and therefore profit – with replacements that wouldn’t lead to unintended consequences.

“In terms of consumers, there are huge confusion concerns, and I’m far from convinced if it’s better. When we talk to consumers, they’re hugely confused about what bio-based, compostable and biodegradable mean.”

The report makes numerous mentions of the need for a “joined-up approach” that would ensure that waste management firms and end-user businesses were in agreement over what materials could be used and treated.

edie’s plastics business leadership online event

Taking place on Thursday 16 January from 1pm–4pm (GMT), the Business Leadership Inspiration Sessions will be targeted at sustainability and resource efficiency professionals who are looking to make 2020 the year that they turn the tide on single-use plastics.

Brought to you in association with Nestlé and inspired by edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Hub, the online event, which is free to access for all edie users, combines three edie webinars into a single afternoon. Each webinar session will have its own edie chair and selection of independent expert speakers, and each session will take a particular format.


Matt Mace

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