David Burrows looks at the shift in perceptions and policies around the use of plastic packaging.
Any day now, the Treasury is expected to launch a call for evidence on how charges and taxes could be used to reduce the use of single-use plastics. Buoyed by public interest in the issue and the success of the 5p charge on plastic bags, the government has made plastic packaging a top priority.
“In years to come… people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly,” prime minister Theresa May said when she launched a 25-year plan for the environment in January.
She has a point. In the UK, 2.2m tonnes of plastic packaging are produced every year, but only 0.8m tonnes are recycled, according to sustainability charity Waste and Resources Action Programme. The rest is put in landfills, incinerated or ends up leaking into the environment.
How can the UK reach a point where all plastic packaging is recycled and unnecessary plastic packaging is eliminated? Foodservice wholesalers in particular, at a time when they are bidding to be a one-stop foods and non-foods solution for their customers, need to be on the ball with this trend.
Blowing in the wind
Bans are one option. The government has already announced one on the plastic microbeads used in cosmetic products and will now be ‘exploring whether we can ban other problematic materials where suitable alternatives exist’.
In Scotland, the environment minister has proposed a ban on the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic straws. UK ministers have also told retailers to up their game – and some already have.
Supermarket Iceland’s commitment to eliminating all plastic packaging from all its own-brand products by the end of 2023 is perhaps the boldest policy to date. However, plastic packaging manufacturers wonder what it will use instead.
Aluminium is an option, but the cost is prohibitive and there is the energy needed to mine it. Cartons are another, but for some products, such as fresh meat, it will probably have to be laminated with plastic. This would create the same problems facing coffee cup distributors and recyclers – separating the paper and plastic is a pretty expensive business.
Which brings us to taxes. The House of Commons’ environmental audit committee wants a 25p ‘latte levy’ on disposable cups. A few months ago, the idea of such a policy seemed folly, but times have changed – it will certainly be a serious contender when the government mulls over all the evidence.
The secretary of state for the environment, Michael Gove, is also keen on a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles, which could improve recycling rates and reduce litter. Retailers and wholesalers had once rallied against the idea, but not anymore. Now the Federation of Wholesale Distributors is ‘cautiously backing’ a UK-wide DRS, provided it is a self-funding, third-party scheme with minimal impact on wholesalers.
James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, says: “It is not credible for us to just shout ‘too difficult’ when confronted with options for how we can play our part.”
There are almost certainly new regulations on the way. However, it is not the end of the road for plastics.
“We know that plastics are incredibly useful for keeping food fresh and stopping it from spoiling,” says Lee Davies, head of resource efficiency and the circular economy at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
He adds: “We have got to be very careful not to just suddenly say, ‘Right, okay, today, plastics are the enemy and we are going to get rid of all this stuff,’ which then results all of a sudden in a huge impact in terms of other sustainability issues.”