Supermarkets and manufacturers are under more pressure than ever before to create less waste and many are making progress and reducing packaging, but the Recycling Association is clear they could be doing at a lot more.
The problem of discarded plastic for the world’s oceans, marine life and even for human health is rarely out of the news. British ministers have promised action. Phillip Hammond, the chancellor, has called for a plastic tax on any packaging with less than 30% recyclable material, while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to create a uniform system of recycling across England, as currently there is none.
Campaigners agree and say that manufacturers and recyclers must implement a joined-up approach.
“Something we’re concerned about is that different companies are looking at the same problem, but they’re moving in different directions. Some are switching to paper, some to biodegradable plastic – they all have merits in their own right but if they’re conflicting, the system doesn’t operate,” Libby Peake, a senior policy adviser at the Green Alliance thinktank, told the Guardian.
Fruit n’ Veg = Paper and Cardboard
Some supermarkets, such as Marks and Spencer and Morrisons, are shifting back to paper and cardboard for fruit and vegetable packaging.
But in others, such as Tesco, many of the fruit and vegetables are still wrapped up in plastic. The problem is made significantly worse because not all plastics are equal. A single material plastic can be easily recycled, but laminated layers of different plastics can’t and there is no way of telling just from looking at them. Black plastic trays are also non-recyclable because the infrared sorting machines in recycling centres can’t recognise them.
Simon Ellin, chairman of the Recycling Association, told Belong that, while we should produce much less plastic in the first place, some plastics, used responsibly, are fine, and can have significant benefits.
“All we need to do is reduce the number of polymers, design for recyclability, clearly label them and make it mandatory for councils to collect them,” said Ellin.
But if a universal recycling system is to be introduced, the only way to pay for it is to make the companies that make plastic cough up for the recycling costs of their own products.
Manufacturers Should Pay for Recycling
At the moment under the Packaging Recovery Note system, companies only have to pay about 10% of recycling costs, but under the new proposal being considered by Defra, plastic manufacturers would have to pay 100%.
Ellin says this is crucial to increasing the amount of plastic that is recycled.
“They are advocating Extended Producer Responsibility where the producer pays for 100% of the lifecycle of their packaging products – they are also advocating the produce pays principle where the less recyclable it is, the more they pay,” he said.
Ellin says there also needs to be a decision among retailers on if plastic really is the best option for keeping food products fresh.
“We also need proper scientific research on if plastic packaging actually keeps products fresher for longer – WRAP did a study and found that there was no difference in most of the fruit and veg they tested. Paper is infinitely recyclable and not harmful if it gets littered,” said Ellin.
But in other cases, Ellin warned, food contamination of paper and cardboard cannot be so easily washed off.
Peake agreed and says that more thought needs to go into what food is packaged in because it all has an environmental impact.
“Getting rid of plastic pollution is obviously very, very vital. But you can’t just think that “Oh, if it’s not plastic, then it’s OK”. Because they all result potentially in pollution, in carbon gases, or land problems,” she said.