Government policy on plastic packaging needs to focus on real issues – addressing marine pollution should not be the driver

2017 was the year that we demonised plastic packaging but the debate needs to be better informed in 2018 if we are going to tackle the real issues

Plastic packaging hit the headlines in 2017 as the environmental lobby put it at the top of the agenda in terms of pollutants.  In particular the damage to our seas was highlighted in the wonderful BBC series Blue Planet 2.  The seas are full of plastic waste which takes centuries to break down.  And in the meantime, marine life is being impacted, caught in fishing nets, swallowing micro polymer particles and entering the animal and ultimately the human food chain.  I don’t dismiss these issues – they are serious and must be addressed.  But to what extent should European governments steer policy to address this issue rather than other environmental issues?

According to the journal Science, there are currently estimated to be a staggering 150 million tonnes of plastic in our oceans currently and this level is increasing rapidly.  This is a serious cause for concern, but 88-95% of plastic waste in our oceans comes from 10 rivers – none of them in Europe.  Big rivers, with high water flow in 3rd world countries are the problem areas.  Where there is limited municipal waste collection, rubbish gets thrown into the street and eventually washed into rivers.  Large rivers accumulate lots of waste and are efficient at transferring that waste to the sea.  When the waste reaches the sea it is dispersed across the oceans.

So the issue for marine pollution is as much about whether the waste is collected at all and how effectively as how much plastic packaging is created.  Waste collection is something that we do in Europe to a large extent– not necessarily in the most environmental way, but waste, including plastic, is almost entirely collected!

So while marine pollution is of great concern, government policy on packaging in Europe should not be focused on it as it is, to excuse the pun, a red herring.

The question for Europe is much broader and more complex – how can we reduce the level of waste we generate and how should we handle our collected waste?  What are we seeking to improve?  Food wastage, carbon footprint, landfill usage?  Europe generates about half a tonne of waste per person and we generally recycle about 45% of that waste.  Of the remaining waste, about half of that goes to landfill.

The urgency of the question has just increased as China has just closed its doors to imports of foreign waste.  So what are the alternatives for a Europe that remains reliant on landfill in foreign countries?  Should we migrate to multi-use packaging along the lines of the German model, incinerate or recycle?  And if our objective is to reduce the energy footprint of our packaging how does that guide us in terms of choice of original material?

If 2017 was the year we focused on plastic waste, 2016 was the year we focused on high levels of food waste.  How ironic – one of the most effective routes to reducing food waste is to protect deterioration – plastic packaging plays a pretty important role in that preservation.

In the UK, the government appears to be edging towards a German model of encouraging multi-use.  Working on packaging questions in Germany recently, we found that Germany is moving away from this model – so the UK government’s position raises a few questions at least.

So as governments across Europe look at legislation to improve overall wastage, how about addressing a number of questions:

  • What can be done to encourage use of polymers that can be recycled such as PET as opposed to those which cannot? How can this be achieved without detrimentally impacting food wastage?
  • Why are authorities not broadening their recycling efforts beyond bottles to meat and convenience food packaging?
  • What are the true environmental and financial benefits and costs of multi-use rather than single use packaging?
  • And for UK government, rather than putting in place taxation schemes on single use packaging which will drive complex multi-use recycling industry structures, how about driving performance between local districts to match the best. “Impoverished” Westminster Council, (which would rank as a wealthy district even if ranked alongside Monte Carlo, Luxembourg and the like), only manages to recycle 17.4% of its waste, versus a UK national average of 44% and a top performing district (East Riding of Yorkshire) recycling 65.4%.