Between March- June, I was fortunate enough to do a 3-month placement at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which advises UK Parliament on all scientific matters. My task: research and publish a four-page briefing paper on policy options to reduce waste from plastic food packaging. After visiting trade shows, touring recycling plants and conducting over 40 interviews with stakeholders across the food supply chain, my paper has now been published and is freely available here. Here’s a summary of the wider messages this experience has left me with:
We can’t recycle our way out of this mess
Recycling may be presented as an endlessly circular process but this doesn’t really work in practice. Food-contact regulations mean only a few plastics (PET water bottles and HDPE milk bottles) can actually be recycled again for food packaging, so the remaining types are ‘downcycled’ into other applications (and how many park benches do we need?!). Besides this, during my visits to the recycling plants, I saw just how energy intensive and dirty the processes are that recover some value from the mountains of our plastic waste. Recycling is also highly inefficient due to incorrect disposal; contamination with food residue and confusion over what can be recycled.
Deposit-return schemes could be more trouble than they are worth
Many people argue that we should follow the example of European countries where customers are reimbursed for bringing back glass, metal or plastic drinks containers for recycling. Indeed, the UK Government has proposed to introduce a deposit-return schemes (DRS) nationwide from 2023 and Scotland have announced they are going ahead with this. But it is not clear if DRS could be seamlessly integrated alongside our existing kerbside collections. As one stakeholder argued: ‘Why should we force consumers to go out of their way to recycle, when they could just leave it in the recycling bin outside their house?’ It could also place a huge burden on retailers who are required to collect, store and sort the bottles – or pay £30,000 for a reverse vending machine. An impact assessment by the Institute of Economic Affairs concluded that introducing DRS in the UK would be ‘highly inefficient’, with any increase in recycling rates achieved at ‘a disproportionate cost’.
|Mounds of plastic waste at Bywaters Recycling plant in East London|
There are no ‘quick fixes’
Switching from plastic to ‘traditional’ materials such as glass, paper and metal may seem like a ready-made solution, but this could be a bad move when one considers all the environmental impacts across the value chain. One study concluded, for instance, that replacing plastic packaging in Europe with traditional materials would increase GHG emissions by a factor of 2.7, equivalent to the annual CO2-emissions of Denmark[i]. Glass is a particular problem because it is so heavy, increasing CO2-emissions from transport. Indeed, Garcon Wines are so concerned about climate change impacts from glass that they have moved their product into a flat, plastic bottle that is 87% lighter than the average glass version and 40% spatially smaller. And yet I encountered many retailers who were determined to move away from plastic at all costs. When I mentioned issues such as carbon emissions, the answer was always the same: ‘It doesn’t matter as long as it’s not plastic’.
Compostable packaging may only work for ‘niche’ applications
A big trend in the packaging arena is compostable packaging; materials designed to break down alongside food waste into CO2, water and biomass inside an industrial composting facility. Their real selling point is that contamination with food residue isn’t a problem: if a takeaway meal is served in a compostable container, both the packaging and any food residue can be disposed of together. But this requires separate food waste collections, which aren’t yet in place across the whole of the UK. Furthermore, most collected food waste in the UK is sent for anaerobic digestion, rather than composting. Because compostable packaging doesn’t tend to break down in the right timeframe in anaerobic digestors, it tends to be removed at these facilities and landfilled or incinerated. Some compostable packaging looks so similar to conventional plastics that consumers can easily be confused and dispose of it incorrectly. I’ve concluded that the UK waste infrastructure isn’t’ yet ready for compostable packaging, but they can be effective in well-managed, enclosed environments (such as canteens or sports events). See my bonus briefing paper on compostable packaging for more!
Going plastic-free would take some compromises
It’s often said that a hundred years ago, fewer food products were packaged and we were used to buying products loose. But food systems have fundamentally changed, moving towards convenience, on-the-go eating and self-service payment methods. We’ve also become used to having products from around the world at all times of the year, and for fresh fruit and vegetables to last for ridiculously long periods. In theory we could ditch the packaging, as the growing number of ‘unpackaged’ shops shows, but will consumers really make the change? Are we willing to weigh out produce, remember to bring our own containers and accommodate massively reduced shelf-lives? Perhaps there is a space in the middle (after all, who needs a cucumber to last 6 days?) but it is unlikely we could go without packaging completely.
Extended Producer Responsibility is the best solution I’ve heard
One of the most promising proposals from the Government is introducing extended producer responsibility, where manufacturers and importers of plastic packaging pay the full cost upfront for the cost of collecting, transporting, sorting and recycling the waste from their products, besides educating consumers on how to dispose their waste correctly. At the moment, these producers only pay for around 10% of these costs, with the rest being borne by local authorities. The idea is to have a modulated fee, so that easy-to-recycle materials pay less than those which are difficult or impossible to recycle. Ultimately, this could ‘design-out’ poorly designed packaging, by forcing manufacturers to consider what happens to their packaging at the end of its life.
Taking care of our own waste should be just the start
Even if we revolutionised the UK waste management system so that all packaging was recycled, composted or reusable, the problem of plastic waste wouldn’t end there. Most (55–60%) plastics enter the ocean from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, with the shores of the US, UK and Europe only accounting for less than 2%.[ii] As big food companies move into developing countries and the Western diet becomes more widespread, the packaging burden on these countries’ already struggling infrastructure will rapidly increase. Only by developing infrastructure, policies and best practices in these countries can we start to make a real dent in the mountain of plastic flooding into the oceans. Whilst the government has a role here, we can play a part too. For instance, donating to charities that fund clean drinking water could help reduce plastic bottle usage. Or why not start a petition to the big brands to invest in waste infrastructure in emerging markets?
As consumers, we have the power to argue for the future we hope for - but we need to be brave if we are to be heard. So arm yourself with knowledge and spread the word! Please do read my briefing papers and share on social media. The Twitter handle for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology is @POST_UK and my own is @sciencedestiny. Thanks for reading!