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Opinion

‘Stop demonising plastic – because we can’t yet deliver a plastic-free world’

Attenborough’s Blue Planet II made a lot of people think about plastic waste but Tony Corbin of Packaging News says a ‘plastic-free’ future is still far beyond the horizon

It seems recent media coverage, including Blue Planet II and the Daily Mail, has helped to create a watershed moment in the effort to tackle plastic waste. At the launch of the government’s 25-year environmental plan Theresa May thanked the Daily Mail for highlighting the problem and she told Andrew Marr on his BBC1 show: “Nobody who watched Blue Planet will doubt the need for us to do something.”

While that heartstring-tugging episode of David Attenborough’s acclaimed TV programme may have lacked supporting evidence, and with most news outlets simplistically sticking to one viewpoint (that plastic is Satan’s own material), few would argue that the amount of plastic waste, including that which ends up in the ocean, is not a serious problem. And yes that includes those within the packaging industry.

Many brands have been moving towards making as much plastic packaging as possible recyclable, which is sensible as long as the recycling infrastructure receives adequate investment, but replacing plastic altogether would be far more problematic. When Iceland announced its ‘plastic-free’ targets, managing director, Richard Walker was seen on Channel 4 News holding a paper box which he said is replacing plastic containers, before turning it over to reveal a plastic lining. Replacing that with a water-based spray would be the second step, he said.

Do the 200 MPs calling on major supermarkets to eliminate plastic packaging by 2023 know if that’s practical?

This highlights the vital role plastic plays in keeping food fresh and that it is not the one dimensional cartoon villain it’s often made out to be. It also proves that, realistically, a suitable replacement – water-based or otherwise – might not be available in the immediate or near future. It could be easier with beverage containers, with glass and metal providing time-honoured alternatives.

Some reasons why many producers opt for plastic for drinks bottles are its light weight and greater toughness, design flexibility and economical production. Basically, despite all the great qualities and recyclability glass and aluminium offer, plastic is cheaper and more durable. Rather than reverse the trend one would imagine the inclination would be to go as far as possible down the plastic recycling route until a viable alternative becomes available. After all, a key phrase when talking about tax and bans on plastic is single use.

Big companies are making the right noises. Drinks giant Coca-Cola has just announced its new packaging vision ‘World Without Waste’, including a multi-year investment featuring ongoing work to make packaging 100 per cent recyclable. The company is committing to building better bottles, whether through more recycled content, by developing plant-based resins, or by reducing the amount of plastic in each container.

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The development of bioplastics, polymers from organic sources, over the years will have been seen as an option but recycling bioplastics is a more complex and expensive process and much of it ends up in landfill.

Iceland’s ‘plastic-free’ announcement and Waitrose’s subsequent pledge not to sell own-label food in black plastic (difficult to recycle) beyond 2019 follows the Prime Minister setting out the government’s strategy on plastic with plans to tax single-use plastic packaging and assist supermarkets to create plastic-free aisles. It might not be such a wild conspiracy theory to believe there’s a link between plastic waste topping the political agenda (it may have even overshadowed Brexit talk few a few hours) and China’s ban on plastic waste imports at the beginning of the year. Could Michael Gove’s comment when asked about the potential impact of China’s ban – “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is … something to which – I will be completely honest – I have not given it sufficient thought” – have been a smokescreen? Unlikely, unless he has perfected a clueless act to an Oscar-worthy degree, but perhaps that was the point when the government realised that we might be facing a huge problem; namely heaps of plastic waste that can no longer be sent abroad. Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK, says that China’s refusal to accept more plastic waste is the reason why she feels “we can’t recycle our way out of this mess.”

Whether it has become a hot topic because the Prime Minister became emotional while watching Blue Planet II, mobilised by the Daily Mail or backed into a corner by China, the issue is at least being addressed. But the government should not ignore the packaging industry and brands which largely have similar goals and can add insight and balance to the debate. Do the 200 cross-party MPs who are calling on heads of the major supermarkets to eliminate plastic packaging from their products by 2023 know if that’s practical?

It’s also worth bearing in mind that with packaging waste (industrial waste is a whole different topic) we, the consumers – widely considered to be a driving force behind the big companies’ sustainability announcements – can be buffers between plastic waste and the ocean by how we dispose of it.

Tony Corbin is content editor for Packaging News@PackNews

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