Plastics package: are policy proposals already heading to landfill?

Philip Hammond’s Budget was short on green commitments as Westminster retreats from tough action. By David Burrows.

"The biggest environmental challenge facing our planet is climate change – and anything that distracts attention from that is potentially dangerous." That was Guy Singh-Watson, the founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, on BBC Radio 4’s “Costing the Earth” last month talking about the “almost religious [anti-plastic] fervour” sweeping the world. Bang goes another potential sponsor for this column.

He has a point, of course: the comments were sandwiched between the latest (gloomy) report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighting the catastrophe that very soon awaits us if temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees, and the (equally gloomy) WWF report showing wildlife losses averaged 60% globally from 1970 to 2014 thanks to “exploding” human consumption. If the findings were hard to swallow, the solutions are already being scraped into the food waste caddy.

“History shows that, when presented with unpalatable evidence of the undesirable effects of our decisions, we either bury our collective heads in the sand, or order the problems we face in terms of their tractability,” noted Mayer Hillman, author of “How We Can Save the Planet”. “Where they are judged to be intractable, as in this instance, they are relegated for later attention.” Recycling a bit more plastic, introducing charges for carrier bags and bringing a reusable bottle or coffee cup, are a lot more palatable than, say, taxing meat, decarbonising our transport systems or actually meeting some of EU’s biodiversity-protecting targets.

In the US Donald Trump’s administration has already argued that, come the end of the century, global temperatures will have risen by four degrees, so shouldn’t we just give up? In the UK there appears to be a similar approach to policy, albeit masked in the green mist that occasionally wafts from Westminster.

NGOs were at first wooed by the fact that a self-proclaimed “environmentalist” (Michael Gove) had replaced a climate-illiterate (Andrea Leadsom) at DEFRA, with the former even convincing the prime minister to publish a 25-year plan to tackle the looming environmental crisis. Not any more.

The Ecologist noted back in May that the early 2018 greenwash was already fading. And since then we’ve had the go-ahead for fracking and the climate minister Claire Perry merrily encouraging everyone to carry on eating steak and chips until the cows come home (this, despite repeated warnings – including from her own advisers – that meat consumption needs to fall to have any chance of hitting climate change targets).

Brexit hasn’t helped: environment regulation has been at the heart of the Tory Party’s conflict over the divorce deal. Gove, the environment secretary, has ploughed on regardless in an increasingly desperate effort to catch up with EU proposals on plastics (see below). A DEFRA-led consultation on plans to ban plastic straws, drinks stirrers and cotton buds was launched in October, while consultants have been commissioned to assess the impact of a ban on plastic cutlery, plastic plates and plastic balloon sticks.

Which brings us to last week’s Budget, in which the chancellor, Philip Hammond, said Britain’s future economy would be “low-carbon and green”, but actual commitments were hard to find. The only scraps tossed to green campaigners seemed to be a new tax on the manufacture and import of plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled plastic and a commitment to reform the packaging producer responsibility scheme.

This line from the WWF report seems pertinent here: “Decision-makers at every level need to make the right political, financial and consumer choices to achieve the vision that humanity and nature thrive in harmony on our only planet.” With the IPCC and WWF reports front of mind and splashed across the media, this was an opportunity missed by the governing party – a chance to build on the momentum created by “Blue Planet” to deliver a more comprehensive package of measures at a time when people are once again buying into behaviour change that benefits the environment.

Instead, the onus will be on business. The latte levy on disposable cups, for instance, has been scrutinised but wouldn’t work, said Hammond. “I will monitor carefully the effectiveness of the action the takeaway drinks industry is already taking to reduce single-use plastics and I will return to this issue if sufficient progress is not made.” The Foodservice Packaging Association said the decision was testament to the “excellent progress in enabling coffee cups to be recycled”. Coffee cup recycling rates have increased from an estimated one in 400 two years ago to one in 25, according to a report just published by the Paper Cup Recovery and Recycling Group (and we’ll be looking at this more closely next time).  

For now, the coffee shop chains can rest easy, it seems. Or can they? Plastic is now the third most active issue pressed by NGOs globally on the food industry, and it has been rising fast for over 12 months, according to the monitoring firm Sigwatch. The food firms most criticised on plastics in the last 12 months, in descending order of criticism are: Nestlé, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Unilever, PepsiCo and Starbucks. So, while they’re largely off the hook as far as regulation is concerned, the grip of activists and consumers remains firm.

At the Package we’ve been monitoring the commitments made so far, but we needn’t have wasted our time. Greenpeace has just surveyed 11 of the largest fast-moving consumer goods companies and published the results. There are 58 pages, but there are three issues that merit attention.

First, none of the firms could provide details of their plastics footprint, though many plan to do so. (A nod here to Nestlé, which was the only one to detail the specific indicators it’ll be using when it reports). This explains the ambiguity that runs through all the commitments to date, but then how have some managed to switch to “more sustainable” packaging materials if they haven’t assessed the impact of the plastics?

Second, none of the firms knew the ultimate fate of their packaging. An audit of 239 litter clean-ups, published last month, offered a clue – Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé were the “top polluters”, accounting for 45% of the plastic pollution found in Europe.

Meanwhile in the UK, data analysed by the Guardian has revealed that British export firms claim to have shipped abroad 35,135 tonnes more plastic than HM Revenue & Customs has recorded leaving the country. The paper reported that the Environment Agency has been passed allegations that export firms are using the Netherlands to effectively launder plastic waste before illegally moving it out to other countries in the Far East, where they might struggle to get approval under the UK licence system.

Never has a faster buck been made than packing up plastic and shipping it overseas, it seems. Not that packaging producers, the food industry or waste handlers had any idea about all this (those looking for the latest instance of industry representatives acting surprised that this has all gone to pot should check out this episode of the BBC’s “Bottom Line”).

And third, no company shared specific plans or commitments to reduce the total amount of single-use plastic items they are producing. This has been a recurring theme in the commitments made to date, including the most recent one led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The “New plastics economy global commitment”, launched last week, boasts signatories from companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally. Hospitality and foodservice businesses are conspicuous by their absence. Is this because their plastics footprints are lower (the reasoning that WRAP gave for a lack of interest from the sector in its UK Plastics Pact)? Or is it because food-to-go packaging is a much tougher nut to crack? Those involved might want to take note of the latest figures from the NPD Group, which show that for the year ending July 2018, there were 5.1 billion food-to-go visits, an increase of 2%. By comparison, on-premise visits fell 3.5% to 4.4 billion.

It’s the phrasings of the new agreement’s targets that are worth unpicking. Specifying that, by 2025, 100% of plastic packaging is “easily and safely” recycled, reused or composted is a marked improvement – another recurring theme to date has been the promise that 100% of packaging will be recyclable even though almost all plastic is theoretically recyclable (indeed, there’s a site in Scotland that is promising to take any plastic and recycle it).

But, pedants as we are here at the Package, the target to “eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and move from single-use to reuse packaging models” is bothering us. Much as the definition of “recyclable” needs to be spelled out, so too does the term “single-use”, as the negotiations in Brussels are proving.

According to ENDS Europe, the European Council is making “super-fast” progress on proposals to ban a range of disposable plastic products. However, there is concern that the definitions in play for single-use – “designed or placed on the market to be used only once over a short time span before it is discarded” – mean that producers could market items like throwaway cups as “reusable”. MEPs also backed off from an opportunity to be setting EU-wide consumption reduction requirements for food containers and cups.

Indeed, in all the fervour surrounding plastics the concept of “consuming less” is rarely mentioned. But this is the message that sits front and centre of the IPCC and WWF reports – and it’s not just the plastic bottle or the burger box they’re talking about, it’s the fizzy drink and the meat inside them.

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