I am doing my weekly ho-hum food shopping. My basket is quickly piling up with all kinds of food, neatly and safely wrapped in their special armour– some in soft & smooth films, others in clear and sturdy boxes, a few in porous nets, and most in slim, delicate looking, but surprisingly strong and ever crackling film. These wrapped food items exemplify class; their shiny coats reflect a promise of impeccable hygiene and quality, a dose of nutrition, and a warranty of immortal shelf life. They are way more elegant than their looser counterparts, which my snobbish self won’t give a second glance. My negligence is partly due to an unconscious bias, built over time. I may have perceived these unprotected and supposedly left out food items to be of lower quality, on the verge of expiry and inflicted with pesticide. But for the most part, it’s because they are less attractive and add a few extra steps in my busy shopping schedule – tearing off a bag, choosing from the copious amounts of fruits and vegetables, picking the best ones and measuring the right amount – all this work when I can simply pick up a pack of zesty looking three bell peppers or six perfectly sized tomatoes. I am not convinced!
By helping us pick our groceries, supermarkets have instilled us with an expectation of convenience that we are now so accustomed to. One size fits all, no matter what one’s actual needs may be – I personally don’t need three bell peppers a week, and I must confess I am not a big fan of the green peppers that come as part of the packaged deal. By the end of the week, I struggle to invent lunch and dinner recipes that can well incorporate the left-over peppers before I poignantly lob them into the bin.
This is our era of convenience wrapped in plastics.
Packed groceries, packaged lunches, daily snacks wrapped in plastic packaging, plastic water bottles, shopping bags, are now an integral part of our daily lives.
Our convenience, however, has come at a cost to our environment and to marine life and has left us all with a colossal issue – the mounting plastic problem.
Recently, the food industry has experienced a strong consumer backlash over excessive use of single-use plastics. Consumers are furious over the incongruous high prices of unpackaged products – in case you did not already know, lose products are priced way higher than those heavily wrapped in plastics. A BBC show ‘War on Plastics’ aired earlier this year, unveiled public frustration of not able to shop without taking home more single-use plastics. Protests against manufacturers and supermarkets have become commonplace over the past few years – from social media outrage, petitions to ban single-use plastic, to more grassroots protests and defiance against local supermarkets with consumers returning piles of plastic waste back to the supermarkets.
Food packaging, however, is just one element of an ever-growing plastic menace. Look around your office or your home right now, chances are you’ll notice yourself surrounded by plastics — in your furniture, stationery, phone, gadgets, utensils, cleaning products, wipes, kids’ toys and more. Plastic has also sneaked into our clothes and cosmetics as microplastics that enter our water streams directly.
The increasing use of plastic in the construction, automotive and electrical & electronics industries will see even greater production of plastic in the coming years – plastic production is forecast to grow by 40%.
What is the plastic fuss all about?
The growing awareness of plastic pollution and its inherent risks to human health, environment and marine life has led to a public outcry that is forcing governments across the world to improve legislation and governance on plastic waste.
Consumers want brands to get rid of plastics, eschewing regular brands for more eco-friendly products.
Many consumers are willing to pay a higher price for eco-friendly products and products in biodegradable packaging.
Businesses have been put under the microscope by investors too. A recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has shown that a group of 26 financial institutions, managing more than $4.2 trillion in assets, have demanded some of the largest manufactures and food & beverage companies to reduce their use of plastic packaging and improve their recyclability. Companies are now under greater pressure to disclose annual plastic packaging use, set reduction goals, and to facilitate recycling & transition to recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging.
The complex plastic landscape
Some overwhelming facts encapsulating the plastic landscape –
40 per cent of plastic produced is packaging, majority of it is ‘single-use’ – i.e. it’s used once and then thrown away. We produce over 300 million tons of plastic every year out of which 8 million tons of plastic makes its way into the oceans. Only 9% of all plastic produced is recycled, leaving the rest to be disposed of through incineration or eventually dumped in landfills & oceans. It is a known fact that plastics do not biodegrade. Plastic bags, food packaging and straws will remain for thousands of years and break down into smaller pieces, contaminating the environment and affecting life in the ecosystem.
Getting rid of plastics poses problems across several fronts – may that be the cost of replacing plastic with new alternatives, or ensuring equal longevity of the product, or the impact of alterations required in the supply chain and the overall impact on the environment.
One of the greatest challenges organisations and innovators face today is to improve the plastic economy while ensuring the solutions are in harmony with the rest of the environment. This is particularly true in the case of the packaging industry, where plastics play a crucial role in maintaining the food’s shelf life. Food wastage would otherwise have dire consequences on the environment – when food rots it releases methane which is roughly 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than co2.
With a desire to find plastic substitutes, many green alternatives have sprung up however at a price currently much greater to that of their plastic counterparts. Paper straws are 4 times more expensive than plastic ones and forks made from plant starch are 3.5 more expensive than regular plastic forks. Other solutions add to the conundrum of carbon vs plastic impact. The popular bamboo straws that are rapidly replacing plastic straws have a phenomenally high carbon footprint linked to its import from China. A study conducted on replacing plastic bottles in the soft drinks industry with alternatives like glass, tin or aluminium suggested a 5 fold increase in environmental impact.
Waste management and collection infrastructure
Poor recycling waste management and collection infrastructure is yet another impediment to solving our plastic problem. There are three key issues at hand here–
- The first is around general public plastic awareness. Some plastics are widely recyclable while others are dependent on the waste management systems within local councils. The education around recyclable disposal is limited and local residents are ill-informed about:
a) identifying & distinguishing which plastics are recyclable and
b) ensuring no contaminating elements are present when recycling these items.
- Second is the lack of existing biodegradable plastics disposable streams & infrastructure. In the UK only 50% of households have access to food waste collections. If biodegradable waste and packaging end up in landfill, it will cause significant methane emissions, a far worse contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide.
- Finally, recycling the ubiquitous polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a plight; it is a complex composition of various harmful additives and requires separation from other plastics calling for manual sorting or implementing technology for automated sorting propelling additional costs, time, and resources.
Additional reading: Debunking the compostable myth
Action by government and businesses
Over the past few decades, western countries and particularly the UK have been able to meet high recycling targets by relying on China to relieve it of its waste plastic burden. However, this has changed significantly since China imposed a ban on imports related to foreign plastic waste in 2018. The UK has found some solace by exporting waste to other countries but has recently ended up on the radar of the media, its citizens and international NGOs, looking for action to tackle waste locally. This is bound to increase the pressure on UK industries using single-use plastics within their manufacturing, distribution and supply chains to become more accountable for their contribution towards this environmental burden. Scrutiny of an organisation’s carbon footprint and recycling processes by governments and consumers is bound to take centre stage.
The UK government has taken a proactive stance by acknowledging single-use plastic as ‘one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world’ and committed to eliminating all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 under the 25-year environmental plan.
The government launched the Resources and Waste strategy in December 2018, introducing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that will place the onus of plastic disposal on the producers. The Government will also introduce a tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic.
Additional reading: Resources and Waste Strategy: a shift in responsibility
The regulations are set; however, the deadlines are far off. The UK generates 5 million tonnes of plastic waste per year (WRAP) and by waiting another 20 years for any real action risks increasing the Earth’s plastic load by many millions of tonnes with the incumbent and numerous problems associated with plastic pollution.
Action is being taken by notable brands as sustainability initiatives begin to become widely integrated into business strategies. UK frozen food supermarket chain Iceland is committed to going plastic-free for all of its own-brand products by opting for paper and pulp-based packaging that can be recycled through domestic waste collections. McDonald’s has announced trialling paper straws in its restaurants while Starbucks has removed all plastic straws and cutlery from its UK branches. Several brands have set some overarching targets – drinks manufacturers Coca-Cola & Pepsi, food & cleaning multinational Unilever, food producer Nestle, and cosmetics company L’Oréal have also pledged to ensure all their packaging is either reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
But despite these commitments, many of these organisations are still unclear on out how they will meet the set targets. Experts fear that without the right approach, this rush to banish plastics from food and other products will either make the goods we buy more expensive or have an adverse impact on the environment.
Looking toward a responsible and circular future
Going forward three key stakeholders – the Government, Businesses & Consumers will play a pivotal role in solving the plastic pollution crisis and improving the plastics economy. I have reviewed how the coming few years will shape the plastic landscape and actions that each can take in tackling plastic waste.
In the UK, the massive increase in the production of single-use plastic has left several local authorities struggling to process the low value and hard-to-recycle plastic materials. The fact that the infrastructure and technology to recycle plastics is still developing, it is simply imprudent to consider that recycling can keep up with the growth of plastic production. The government should take lead in formulating a foolproof strategy to tackle the issue – what we need is an action plan that plots the environmental and social impact of plastics, and increased regulations on production & recycling of plastic materials as well on import of plastic waste.
The government should also support and encourage investments in technology and material spaces that can replace plastics while making plastic producers and companies accountable for the entire lifecycle and true costs of their products.
There is no time to delay; the deadline of 2042 is far away, and the government will have to expedite regulation on the production of virgin plastics and lay down a clear and well-defined policy plan for greater producer responsibility.
Finally, greater efforts need to be made to educate the public about plastic, its ill effects with guidelines around plastic recycling.
Corporates & Businesses
Companies that use or manufacture plastics clearly have a fundamental role to play in resolving the burgeoning plastic problem. To reduce plastic footprint, companies need to reinvent their business models & go from traditional, linear models based on “take, make and dispose of” to more circular thinking which is based on “reuse, resource efficiency, the sharing economy and closed loops”.
Additional reading: We have a problem and a lot of plastics
For incorporating such ideas, businesses can look to collaborate with environmental experts and other established organisations to accelerate this transition.
Brands and supermarkets should offer consumer greater alternatives to reuse and refill and to recycle packaging waste. Shiny packaging is no longer enough to win consumers’ heart; supermarkets that have so far triumphed on customer convenience should step up and encourage circularity. It is vital for businesses to drive public awareness and provide consumers with an incentive to recycle, such as considering financial rewards for returned packaging. Businesses should also be more open about their plastic use and the sustainability of its products and packaging, to help consumers make better purchase decisions.
There is growing evidence that shows that businesses that help consumers reduce plastic waste, have a significant opportunity to improve brand value.
Organisations should also encourage best practices internally – educate employees on single-use plastics, encourage recycling and implement an effective waste management system.
Finally, consumers form an important variable in the demand and supply equation. So, the quickest way to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering our environment is by cutting it off at the source and reducing the amount that is required in the first place.
We must realise that society itself is responsible for much of the littering and marine damage we see today – not just industry, or the government and certainly not the materials themselves.
Changing behaviours at scale is challenging. As consumers, we need to take responsibility even at the expense of our convenience and change our behaviour towards purchasing products without packaging, carrying a reusable water bottle, refusing the use of plastic cutlery & straws and using our reusable shopping bags. These everyday acts will significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste we end up creating daily.
The fight against plastic and climate change are battles that sooner or later, all producers and users will have to face; the facts are clear on this front. The technologies to recycle have become better, but to replace plastic completely will need a more robust solution which is currently missing. Instead of waiting for regulations to come into place, producers may be better placed trying to adapt to changing consumer requirements while winning stakeholder confidence. Businesses have an opportunity to reshape the future of plastic packaging material & design through innovation and technology, to incentivise consumers to recycle and to collaborate and encourage governments to support the industry by creating a sustainable, eco-friendly regulatory environment.
As the saying goes – the most forward-looking companies prepare for the change now.
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