Plastics have become a talking shop but we need to make sure our planet gets the best deal

Supermarket chain, Morrisons, has announced it is to introduce paper bags across eight of its stores as part of an eight week trial, to reduce plastic. We all care about the future of our planet, but we need to ensure the whole picture is looked at before making changes in the name of sustainability. Replacing plastic with paper bags will have a greater impact on the environment.

Life Cycle Assessment studies have shown that paper bags use four times more energy to produce than plastic carrier bags,  they are heavier, which increases transportation costs and vehicle journeys, adding to their carbon footprint. Through forestry management, harvesting, and processing, paper bags use more resources than plastic bags. For some applications paper bags are very well suited, but plastic has been used more successfully for carrier bags because it’s better in almost every way – lighter, stronger, liquid proof, hygienic, reusable, and more economical. Paper bags can split or tear easily, especially if they get wet, meaning more waste is generated if content are spilled or damaged. And, just like paper bags, plastic bags can be made from recycled materials and be recycled themselves.

The problems of plastics in the ocean have grabbed the headlines and certainly need tackling, but it’s easy to act first without fully considering cause and effect. Marine pollution (it’s not just plastic packaging washing up on the beaches) is very real, however, this is the result of littering and ineffective waste management infrastructure, not something inherent in the material. It is important to note, too that 85% of the plastic in the ocean comes from a small number of Asian and Pacific rim countries, so not only do we need to use our resources more effectively, we also need to help others to do so too.

Don’t bash the plastic

Contrary to popular belief, using plastics have a very resource-efficient profile – particularly when produced from recycled materials. Responsibly produced plastic packaging can have a high recycled content (up to 100%) and can be reprocessed many times, not only saving virgin material but associated energy as well. Where this is not practical, the calorific value can be recovered to generate electricity or heat at the end of their useful life, through energy from waste (EfW) plants.

Plastic packaging also brings value and efficiencies to the supply chain – weighing, on average, 4.5 times less than alternatives including paper, cardboard, glass and metal, thus reducing transportation costs.

Lightweight plastic packaging can help supermarkets use resources more effectively in other ways too. For example, it helps keeps food fresher for longer, reducing waste. It also enables the safe containment of liquids such as cleaning products, eliminating environmental leaching of cleaning chemicals and wastes from bottles, for instance.

The UK Plastic Pact

The plastic debate is important because it is helping to address the way plastics are designed, produced, used, re-used, disposed of and re-processed.  Challenges come when products are over packaged, or feature complicated multi-material packaging and pigments that cannot easily be recycled, if at all.

We all want to see the recovery, reuse and recycling of all types of packaging, and ensure materials don’t end up in landfill or in our oceans. WRAP’s UK Plastic Pact brings together major brands and the plastics industry with a common vision and ambitious set of targets, to create a circular economy for plastics. The aim is to eliminate all avoidable plastic packaging waste and make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, recycled, or compostable, by 2025.

Organisations looking to cut out plastic waste and further their sustainability goals should opt for plastics that are created from recycled material. There are many highly competitively-priced products on the market that use recycled plastics, some with up to 100% recycled material content. Products should be packaged in materials that are clearly labelled as recyclable – avoid complex, multi-material containers with no recycling instructions.

The challenge for organisations is not to look for costly and ineffective alternatives to plastics, but to opt to use responsibly sourced materials and become champions of recycling best practice.