Iain Gulland of Zero Waste Scotland highlights the measures that can be adopted to reduce packaging and recycle more of what’s left.
Too many of the products we buy come in packaging that is either unnecessary, difficult to recycle or both. Much of that packaging is plastic.
At Zero Waste Scotland we advocate avoiding any packaging in the first place where it is not needed. And where packaging is required, we need to help businesses transition to more sustainable and recyclable forms to minimise waste and carbon emissions.
There is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Although a vast array of goods, from food and clothing to electricals, come needlessly wrapped in plastic, we must accept that sometimes the most sustainable form of packaging will be plastic of some kind.
The impact of packaging must be measured across its entire life cycle, and the best material to use may well vary from product to product depending on how it is used, consumed and disposed of. We need a clear understanding of what works for different products before investing in changes to packaging and business models.
More sustainable packaging does not need to be more expensive in the longer term. If market leaders increase the recycled content of packaging, for example, that could create economies of scale, which would make the business case more compelling for buyers.
The ‘producer pays’ principle is also key. New policies on packaging waste aim to ensure that responsibility for covering the costs of disposal lies with producers – it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to expect taxpayers to foot the bill.
One of the most challenging sectors for packaging is food. Packaging is often seen as essential to protect products and to maximise shelf life. Businesses must balance the need to respect growing consumer concerns around the environmental impact of packaging with maintaining food safety and reducing food waste.
Plastic, in particular, has become a key material for extending the shelf life of products that might in the past have been dried, cured, pickled or canned. As a result, the way we sell and buy food has become almost totally reliant on single-use plastic packaging.
But we must be willing to think beyond a supply chain that is dependent on single-use packaging, and embrace alternative, more circular solutions, extending the useful life of materials and products by reusing them to maximise their value and minimise waste.
The advent of plastic packaging-free aisles in supermarkets has shown how key supply chain players can change the way they operate to respond to public demand and a new policy landscape.
Packaging producers and manufacturers also need to work more closely with the waste sector to ensure they are using materials that are easily recyclable in the locations in which they are sold, using existing waste collection and management systems and infrastructure.
Industry preference for hard-to-recycle materials such as black plastics is a symptom of decisions made in isolation without considering how this kind of packaging will be managed when it becomes waste.
Looking ahead, there is a strong argument for rationalising packaging so that it can be collected, sorted and recycled through existing infrastructure; while for waste management companies the scale of packaging generated – especially by the food and retail sectors – provides a real incentive to adapt their waste streams over time given the appropriate support.
Iain Gulland is chief executive of Zero Waste Scotland