Pack it in with the plastic preoccupation

Plastic has become the pantomime villain in the war on packaging waste and it’s stifling real progress. By David Burrows.

On July 22nd, the BBC ran a story about a new study to look at the scale of littering around the River Mersey. The headline was: “River Mersey project launched to tackle plastic litter.” A volunteer group, Plastic Free Mersey, has done wonders in terms of clearing rubbish in the area – which should be applauded.

But it isn’t just plastic blighting the river. Indeed, the image used by the BBC shows a can of Red Bull, for example. ‘Plastic pollution’ is snappier than a ‘can crisis’ or paper problem’, so is the BBC just creating a “pantomime villain”, as one post on LinkedIn recently suggested?

The BBC has form on this (as Footprint has noted). And it isn’t alone. Campaign groups, businesses and consumers have all focused on plastic as a problem – and let’s be clear, there is a massive problem. But to see aluminium, cardboard or any other material as a simple solution is not sustainable. To depict them as heroes is, in certain cases, scandalous.

And yet this is exactly the narrative that continues to prevail. Government policy, ambitious in some cases as it may be, is happy to go along with this. There is also a plastics pact; why on earth isn’t it a ‘packaging pact’?

Almost four years on from that BBC Blue Planet episode and we are still seeing big brands trumpeting a switch to paper straws as big news. Marketers have taken control and caused mayhem. Companies and consumers have been left confused. The BBC’s so-called ‘war on plastic’ is just part of the bigger battle between materials. 

"What's sad is that competing materials manufacturers might focus on using legal recourse to fight each other rather than working as a packaging industry to right their wrongs and improve their collection and recycling rates,” wrote Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder of Circuthon Consulting, in an email chat we had the other day.

It’s an incredibly important (not to mention depressing) observation. Hardly a week goes by without a survey showing how popular compostables or cardboard are, or a life cycle assessment giving credit to the low carbon footprint of plastic. Covid, meanwhile, has stoked a reuse versus single-use conflict that continues to run and run.

The single-use plastics industry has done little to help itself. Starting from a position of weakness (terrible recycling rates and a leaky recovery system) it has played right into the hands of those championing the alternatives. Rants rather than reasoning have become the norm.

We are now seeing entire sectors chuck rocks. A study published in June in Nature Sustainability estimated that 80% of the 12 million items of litter assessed were plastic. Also, 50% to 88% of them were ‘take-out consumer items’. The Foodservice Packaging Association’s response was to blame the public – “There is nothing wrong with the packaging per se but there is with the humans who litter” – and the supermarkets (see June’s Footprint Plastics Package for more details of the response). In other words: it’s not us, it’s them.

Deflection becomes the desirable tactic if there is little to say. That is not the case but too often the focus is on chucking stones rather than delivering solutions. So this was a missed opportunity (given the coverage the June study received globally). This was a chance to talk about the solutions industry is putting in place. To highlight the improvements made in the past four years. To detail the encouraging (if small-scale) pilot schemes underway.

Our 2019 reportThe future of foodservice packaging – revealed much to be proud of, but much work to be done. An update would be a valuable and timely exercise, both as the sector builds back better following the pandemic and the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate summit. “Foodservice could find comfort in collaboration,” we wrote two years ago. That is the case now more than ever.

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