COMMENT: Campaigners have not gone soft on plastic

Businesses believing they have ridden out the plastic storm have had a rude awakening as scrutiny shifts to industry-led schemes and solutions. David Burrows reports.

What with the cost of living crisis, a supply chain crunch, inflation and net-zero, some food and beverage companies may have dared to think that plastic packaging had dropped down the agenda for campaign groups and the media. The past few weeks has shown that to be foolhardy.

First off came the BBC Panorama programme entitled ‘Where does my rubbish go?’, which lifted the lid on schemes run by TerraCycle to collect and process hard-to-recycle packaging waste. The company proved an easy target as it was accused of misleading messaging, very low recycling rates (around 1%), and using a waste contractor that had fallen foul of regulator the Environment Agency.

Little in the 30 minutes would have surprised those with even a passing interest in the business of waste. Experts told the programme that the idea of people returning biscuit wrappers, bread bags and crisp packets to collection points (and sometimes having to drive there, and even to different places with different types of packaging) hardly stacks up in terms of carbon or convenience. “It’s a start,” defended TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky.

People want to do the right thing and these schemes tap into that. You might call it extended consumer (as opposed to producer) responsibility. If they fail, it’s the fault of consumers not the corporates. A win-win, or lose-lose, depending on how you look at it. The Panorama team suggested the big brands in bed with Terracycle are simply greenwashing – adding a neat little logo to their products that makes the previously unrecyclable become recyclable. Kind of.

The anti-plastic sceptics will also point to the fact that all the packaging being collected is ‘downcycled’ rather than recycled (think park benches and garden furniture). Panorama didn’t dwell on this but it’s in the spotlight as supermarkets, led by Wrap, ramp up their programmes involving in-store collection points for soft plastic packaging. There are now thousands of collection points and hundreds of tonnes being collected but turning it all back into packaging suitable for food remains largely elusive. Projects by Tesco and Heinz have shown promise by turning soft plastics into cheese wrapping and snap pots respectively. They’ve done so using chemical recycling – a technology that is often hyped as a silver bullet but is already being shot down as its sustainability credentials come under scrutiny.

Tesco was at the centre of a Bloomberg Green investigation recently. Electronic trackers placed in plastics taken to a store showed that some was recycled but “the rest burned or shipped off to an uncertain fate”. Recent reports by Ends Report and E&T also discovered that in some cases there is little transparency over where this waste goes after it leaves stores.  

These initiatives were also the subject of a new briefing paper by the Environment Investigation Agency (EIA). They were “half-hearted” and allowed “the harmful status quo” to prevail, the group claimed. The Foodservice Packaging Association also found itself under attack in the report, with the association criticised for too often taking the line that it is people not producers that are responsible for plastic pollution. What’s more, it “has been pushing to pause the implementation of UK policies currently being developed, including extended producer responsibility [EPR] for packaging”. The FPA said any pushing has been to “help manufacturers deal with complex legislation and ensure that they and their customers are ready, and the legislation is effective”. The association is also not anti-EPR, it said in a statement.

EIA also stuck the boot into the flexible plastic fund – run by compliance firm Ecosurety and designed to create a market for the recycling of flexible plastic packaging. Organisers admit that it’s proving harder than expected to develop a complicated scheme that has to be financially and environmentally sustainable – as well as fully transparent. The scheme hasn’t failed, I was told, it just hasn’t had any successes … yet.

There is little doubt the heat is back on brands and their representatives when it comes to plastic. Reuters has just published an investigation into how Unilever has “worked to undercut laws aimed at eliminating [plastic] sachets in at least three Asian countries”, while Changing Markets has a website dedicated to greenwash with ‘plastics’ and ‘food’ among the first sectors under the spotlight. But I sense a shift in the nature of the scrutiny. 

Previously the narrative has been that plastic is bad and any company using it is bad. This pushed private companies (and politicians) to act. The commitments, the targets, the funds, the hyperbole and the picking of low-hanging fruits all came quickly but now the focus is on unpicking all these initiatives set up to deal with the problem of plastic and to ask: what’s actually changed? 

Wrap for example should be preparing for more detailed critiques of its Plastics Pact, and so too should the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the global initiative it leads involving voluntary corporate commitments. Both have been running for around four years. They will say more patience is required but we are over halfway to the 2025 targets that have been set.

New, promised regulations should have helped create more urgency but have instead been beset by dithering and delays (in part due to covid, in part due to the complex nature of some of the regulation but also in part thanks to fierce industry lobbying). Patience on plastic is running out though. That is worrisome because if brands can’t stand the heat more will turn to ‘plastic-free’ solutions that often do little to lighten the heavy material footprint of business models that rely on single-use.

Change is hard but brands need to be aware that green campaigners have not gone soft on plastic.

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