Feature: The big plastics debate

By David Burrows

The environment has shot up the political agenda in recent weeks with a flurry of legislative announcements on plastics and packaging both from the EU and the UK government. So why is plastic grabbing so much attention at the moment?

In November 2013 I helped publish a supplement on packaging for the fresh produce sector. It was one of the most contentious and topical subjects at the time. Stories that had already attracted headlines included Del Monte’s decision to package individual bananas and Morrison’s covering of coconuts.

It didn’t matter that shelf life was being extended and (potential) food waste reduced, the man from Del Monte should say ‘no’ because packaging is an environmental sinner, campaigners said.

Packaging firms and supermarkets fought their corner of course; over the years they must have spent millions through bodies like Incpen – the industry research council on packaging – to communicate the benefits of their ware. “If packaging were invented today,” one expert told me at the time, “it would be regarded as one of the greatest green technologies due to its protective and preserving qualities.”

Five years on and packaging companies are repeating the same mantra. “Plastic beats most materials hands down on carbon [emissions],” says Kenton Robbins MD at PFF Packaging, one of the UK’s largest independent food packaging manufacturers. “Many of the alternatives on offer are simply not suitable for the packaging of meat and poultry and few consumers understand the journey the industry has gone on to develop modern, fit for purpose and efficient plastic packaging designs,” adds Lubna Edwards, global sustainability director at Klockner Pentaplast Food & Consumer Products (kpFCP).

However, it’s tempting to conclude that the real battle has only just begun. In the past couple of months plastic has become ‘the’ environmental issue – and politicians both here and in the EU have made single-use packaging the unwanted pin-up. There is even talk of a “Paris-style” agreement at global level to reduce the amount of plastic that isn’t recycled, which is most of it.

In the UK, 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging are generated every year, but just 0.8 million tonnes are recycled. The rest ends up in landfill, incinerators or worse still the ocean (and back on people’s dinner plates). Globally, the figures are even more worrisome: 40% is landfilled; 14% is burned; 14% collected for recycling; and 32% leaks into the environment. Indeed, one refuse truck’s worth of plastic is dumped in the sea every minute, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which compiled the figures for its seminal report in 2016. Come 2050, the foundation estimated, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish – a statistic that was brought to life and into millions of living rooms during the BBC’s Blue Planet II series recently.

“We look back in horror at some of the damage done to our environment in the past and wonder how anyone could have thought that, for example, dumping toxic chemicals untreated into rivers was ever the right thing to do,” said Theresa May at the beginning of 2018. “In years to come, I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly.”

The prime minster was speaking at the launch of her government’s long-awaited 25-year environment plan, which included a raft of ambitions to ensure the UK creates no avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Manufacturers will be “encouraged” to take responsibility for the impacts of their products and rationalise the number of different types of plastics they use, whilst supermarkets will “need to do much more to cut down on unnecessary plastic packaging”.

Some are already on the move – Marks & Spencer for instance hopes to only use one polymer for all its packaging, making collection and recycling much easier. However, it’s Iceland, perhaps surprisingly, that is setting the pace. The discount retailer will ‘eliminate’ all plastic packaging from all its own brand products by the end of 2023. The continuing defence of plastic packaging “does not resonate” with the consumer and general public opinion, it said in a press statement. Indeed, a recent poll by Kantar Worldpanel for The Grocer, revealed that 21% of shoppers want supermarkets to opt for plastic-free packaging.

The commitments and claims have baffled those in the plastic packaging sector, who claim the knee-jerk reactions to popular anti-plastic sentiment will result in more food wastage, more carbon emissions, higher costs and inconvenience. PFF’s Robbins says Iceland’s targets are undoubtedly “very aggressive” but he doesn’t think they can back them up. Putting something in the supply chain that can withstand all plastic has to – from the bashing to the extreme temperatures – and is recyclable and safe is “very, very hard”, he explains. Basically, you end up “back with aluminium [and]think of the energy [that requires]”.

Edwards at kpFCP says developers of laminated carton and coated pulps and moulded fibre solutions for the chilled category have “struggled” to produce a better option than plastic. There are issues with moisture absorption, she adds, or complications in recycling are created when plastic is used in a laminate or coating to provide the moisture protection (separating the two materials is expensive).

How about compostables? A few years ago, packaging made from plants was all the rage but supermarkets quickly backed away from the idea as it became clear that there wasn’t the waste collection and treatment infrastructure in place to ensure the materials were ending up in composting plants or at anaerobic digestion (AD) sites taking food waste. “It often happens,” Mark Hilton, resource efficiency lead at consultancy Eunomia, told me last year. “We have a difficult material to recycle so everyone thinks ‘Let’s make it compostable’.”  

This is certainly the case at the moment in foodservice – many coffee shop and pub chains have in recent weeks committed to removing plastic straws and replacing them with compostable or biodegradable ones. It’s brought them plenty of positive PR but an investigation by Footprint found “little evidence” that eco-friendly straws are actually being disposed of in the most responsible way. “Some businesses admit to not actually composting compostable straws at all while others concede they have little idea where recyclable paper straws are ending up,” the report noted.

That isn’t to say that compostables can’t replace some plastics. They can. In October, for example, Bio4Pack announced the “first meat tray in the world which is completely compostable” to EU standards (EN-13432). The tray, which is made using poly lactic acid from sugar cane, can be “thrown in the bin for organic waste after use”, the firm said. At least they can if you’re in the Netherlands. In the UK it wouldn’t be so easy given that many of those running industrial composting or AD sites won’t take the packaging.

The government’s upcoming bioeconomy strategy may offer some solutions, as well as new ideas to help drive interest in compostables, but it is the resources and waste strategy that everyone is waiting for. Indeed, the 25-year environment plan contained very little about waste infrastructure, for instance, whilst the desperate need to improve producer responsibility rules so that packaging placed on the market is easily recyclable was mentioned only in passing.

The detail will come, according to Dr Lee Davies, head of resource efficiency and the circular economy at Defra. At January’s Westminster Forum on waste he said work is underway on “how we are going to deliver” the commitments made in the environment plan. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has made no secret of his views on plastic packaging (Blue Planet reportedly gave him nightmares), so it was interesting to hear his department is taking a more measured approach when it comes to food packaging.

“Food is a really difficult one,” Davies explained. “We know that plastics are incredibly useful in terms of keeping food fresh, stopping it from spoiling, and we’ve got to be very careful how we approach that question and we don’t just suddenly say, right okay, today plastics is the enemy and we are going to get rid of all of this stuff and then all of sudden we are leading to a huge impact in terms of other sustainability issues.”

Davies also wants to see more innovation “so we can sort out those issues and trade-offs in a way that doesn’t lead to something that’s going to be a big problem elsewhere”. Packaging manufacturers argue they have done nothing but innovate – and will continue to do so. PFF for instance is working on ways to improve meat packaging. “We’re looking at the ‘meat nappy’ – the bit that sits in the bottom of the plastic trays,” says Robbins. The idea is to have a hanging polypropylene mesh that acts like a hammock, holding the meat and letting any juices seep through and sit below. The whole package would be recyclable, he says, adding: “We were working on that before Blue Planet.”

But is there more pressure from his retailer clients to move faster in the current climate? “Many are perplexed,” he explains. “Some are thinking ‘what can we do?’ Some are looking at the credentials of their current products. And plenty are waiting to see [what happens next].”

Any time now the Treasury will launch a call for evidence on how charges and taxes could be used to cut consumption of single-use plastics. Buoyed by the success of the 5p charge on carrier bags the government now wants to look at further levies in a bid to “become a world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic littering our planet and oceans”, according to the chancellor, Philip Hammond.

Once again, packaging firms will be on the defensive. “There is no other material that can protect, preserve and present meat and poultry as well as plastic can, ensuring food safety and minimising food waste along the supply chain,” says Edwards at kpFCP. “Demonising plastic isn’t the solution. It is very much about finding the right balance, rather than choosing one material over another.”

Key events highlighting plastic packaging in the past few months

  • EU announces plastics strategy; Greenpeace claims UK government lobbied to reduce the recycling targets in the strategy
  • Blue Planet 2 – episode focusing on plastic waste in the oceans
  • Iceland – commitment to go plastic free for own label packaging
  • UN meeting calls for action on marine litter
  • Environment Audit Committee calls for reform of producer responsibility scheme on packaging and 25p latte levy
  • Treasury announces it will launch a call for evidence on charges for plastic packaging
  • Government publishes 25-year environment plan
  • Scotland announces plans to ban plastic straws
  • Guardian investigation highlights scale of plastic packaging used in supermarkets
  • ​China stops taking plastic waste for recycling



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