Dash to ditch plastic is leading to empty promises on sustainability

A new report by a cross-party Parliamentary group indicates that, under public pressure to act on plastic pollution, the grocery sector is replacing plastic packaging with other materials that, could cause more harm to the environment. The findings from The Green Alliance, as part of its programme for the Circular Economy Task Force, indicates that the consequences of using new materials have not been properly assessed.

The report ‘Plastic Promises: What the grocery sector is really doing about packaging’ indicates that brands report that “decisions to switch away from plastic are often made without considering the environmental impact of the substitute materials chosen, or whether or not there is an adequate collection and treatment infrastructure in place for them.”

This is an issue I recently raised in a letter to The Grocer, published 7 December 2019. In it, I raised concerns that brands are making the wrong decisions about packaging, somewhat ironically, as they may be well-intentioned. I also stated that “we currently have a plethora of claims about new packaging solutions which, at best, causes confusion and, at worst, risks undermining consumers’ trust.”

The ‘Plastic Promises’ report indicates that, in some cases, misinformation is being spread by companies supplying non-plastic single use packaging formats about their environmental credentials. If retailers aren’t being given the full picture, they can’t make informed decisions that would avoid unintended consequences.

Sustainability in the bag?

The report cites that UK supermarkets including Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have recently switched from ‘single use’ plastic bags for loose produce and bakery items for example, replacing them with single use paper bags in some instances.  It highlights that this is a worrying trend as paper bags “can have much higher carbon impacts, though this can depend on material sources and product specification.”

Switching from plastic to alternative materials, such as paper, glass or cardboard, is often suggested to be ‘greener’. However, this can lead to other sustainability issues, such as higher energy and water use, increased C02 emissions in production and transport (due to the extra weight of material), or an increase in food waste.

My viewpoint is that dashing to ditch plastic is diverting people from the bigger issue of tackling climate change, and the benefits of lightweight plastic packaging are being side-lined in favour of heavier materials which are less energy efficient to produce, distribute, and dispose of. Plastic is energy efficient, reduces food waste and, most importantly, helps reduce greenhouse gases. I believe every savvy retail buyer knows this.

Instead of knee-jerk reactions, brands must stick to what they know is best. I believe the public will appreciate being informed and it is in the retailers’ interest to do so. Iceland reversed their decision on paper bags in the greengrocer aisle when they did not meet expectations, and Tesco is not replacing polythene bags for fruit and vegetables, ‘because there is no better alternative’. Good for them. Technologies exist that mean every type of plastic can be recycled, but investment is needed in recycling infrastructure, litter management and simplification of the recycling process for consumers.

Clarity needed on compostable claims

The report also says: “Over 80% of consumers think biodegradable or compostable plastic is environmentally friendly, but there is little understanding of what the terms mean and how the material should be dealt with.

In a previous blog post, I indicated that some bags are being described as biodegradable, or compostable, when this is not always the case, for example oxo-degradable products. In addition, compostable should only be used for the recycling application they are designed for. Compostable bags are ideal for food and garden waste, where they compost alongside this material for future use. However, if compostable packaging is put in with waste for disposal in landfill, as with any other organic matter in landfill, as it degrades it will give off greenhouse gases. Additionally, if compostable packaging is put into the recycling stream, it can contaminate all the other materials, meaning that the whole batch cannot be recycled. So, it would not be appropriate for compostable bags to be used for the collection of other materials for recycling. They are designed to decompose in a compost environment.

The report indicates “Our interviewees wanted a clearer approach to where it should be used and how it should be marked to avoid confusing consumers and potentially causing more problems.”

Life-cycle assessment approach

Whilst supporting plastic usage may currently be unpopular, that mindset is beginning to change. The carbon cost of all products must be taken into consideration across the whole life cycle assessment – if this was a consideration now, lightweight plastic packaging would not be ditched in favour of heavier, less energy-efficient materials.

With a more pro plastic approach, litter management and recycling infrastructure can be improved. The more important issue of climate change will not be slowed or reversed without the help of plastics.