Plastics Package: Good cops; bad cops; and cop outs

This month’s Package is drunk on Coke’s bottle problem but will do the low carbon can-can if the COP climate talks are a success. By David Burrows.

“As we enter the run-up to COP26, the question of the role material production can play in meeting [greenhouse gas] reduction targets has not been raised at all,” noted an early October newsletter from the Biobased and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA).

But it’s there: some of it bubbling under the surface in press releases and comment pieces, some of it smacking you (or rather more specifically a well-known global drinks brand) in the face on BBC TV.

Panorama spent 30 minutes telling us that Coca-Cola is a big company, reliant on plastic and reluctant to do too much about it. Change that attitude and people would love the brand “three times” more than they already do, according to the firm’s former sustainability lead. But if you already sell the equivalent of 14 bottles of your product for every person on the planet, then why bother?

Twiggs and stones

Especially when plastic is apparently so great. “Reduce global warming – use more plastic,” screamed Barry Twigg, chief executive at National Flexible, the UK’s largest distributor of polypropylene, laminates and special films, in a piece for FMCG CEO. Recycling plastic bottles is easy, he wrote, so why are the rates still below 60%? Current recycling of films: 7%. Glass houses, Barry. 

Switching back to single-use glass can pump up carbon emissions, of course. Switching out of glass to plastic on the other hand pumps up campaigners. That hasn’t deterred the likes of ‘Bag in a box’ (BiB) wines, which has just produced life cycle assessments (by CarbonCloud) for three of its products. The bags beat the glass bottles hands down, saving between 36% and 41% of CO2e.

The bag is comprised of a layer of EVOH sandwiched between two layers of LDPE, a spokesperson explains in an email. This is “easily recyclable in the UK as part of roadside household collections”. Is it? “In the essence of transparency, the tap is not [recyclable] in the UK. If more and more people opt for boxed wine over single-use glass, then the demand for recycling facilities for it will be there, so drink BiB.”

Have they been talking to Barry? Drink more wine, use more plastic (Break Free from Plastic has just claimed that in the US plastics are on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030). More, more, more. We thought net-zero was about less? 

Content with recycling

Glass is heavy to transport but looks nicer than plastic – something the Scotch Whisky Association is grappling with as part of its net-zero ambitions. Across SWA’s membership, packaging weight increased by 2.6% between 2012 and 2018; the target is to reduce it by 10% by 2020. Recycled content reached a far more impressive 37%.

Panorama honed in on Coca-Cola’s abysmal record on recycled content, which has only just crept into double digits (the company declined an interview and its written statements offered little reassurance that it was laser-focused on the issues). This opened the door to talk about plastic and carbon: emissions from the company’s packaging could fall by a third if it meets a 2030 target of 50% recycled content. (In June, it reached 100% recycled content in the on-the-go formats in Great Britain)

Such targets have been missed in the past. But there is a difference now: today they are intricately linked with very public net-zero promises. This will focus minds at Coke and other brands that have hefty packaging footprints. Packaging accounts for 24% of PepsiCo’s emissions footprint, for example, and as one of its three largest emissions drivers represents a “clear link between climate and our other sustainability activities”.

Both companies might be interested in research just published in Science showing “net-zero emission plastics can be achieved”. Raoul Meys and colleagues report a series of LCAs suggesting that “even the current varieties of commercial monomers could potentially be manufactured and polymerised with no net greenhouse gas emissions”. Far higher recycling rates and chemical reduction of carbon dioxide captured from incineration or derived from biomass will be the key drivers.

Carbon, cans and compost

Compostable packaging producers are also trumpeting their carbon credentials – a recent press release for takeaway boxes made from seaweed claimed a 250kg carbon saving per tonne of carton board compared to conventional fibres.

And as BBIA noted in its newsletter: “If we need to leave oil in the ground, then we need to start using renewable resources (plants and plant wastes) to produce many of the consumer goods (and packaging) we consume daily.”

And use less. Much less. “Improved resource efficiency, greater recycling and re-use, as well as an absolute reduction of raw material use must become key elements of climate policy in the context of a circular economy,” noted a paper in the journal Intereconomics in 2016. Shift food, transport and buildings to value chains that are aligned with the circular economy and CO2 could drop 83% by 2050, the paper noted.

The problem we have with stuff – the fact there is too much of it – is slowly entering the spotlight (albeit a bit late for COP26). The link between throwaway cultures and climate change is being bridged, though. The Global Resources Outlook showed that pulling materials (food, metals, fossil fuels, minerals) out of the ground and preparing them for use accounted for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions – before any fuel is burned. “I would never have expected that,” Stefanie Hellweg, one of the authors of the paper, told The Guardian.

Other material sectors are cottoning on to the carbon comms pitch. Aluminium – which Twigg also whacked – has long touted its ‘infinitely recyclable’ credentials whilst (generally) shirking mention of emissions. But Budweiser Brewing Group recently announced a new beer can with “the lowest ever carbon footprint” – the “cradle to gate” emissions come in at 2.5tCO2 per tonne of aluminium, or “85% lower than the industry average”. 

Russian company Rusal will supply five million cans for the pilot. Other big firms are also rushing to develop carbon-free versions of aluminium, according to the FT.

Rusal is owned by En+ group, which boasts Greg Barker as executive chair. Barker was a former climate change minister and will be thankful he doesn’t have to deal with the fallout from Boris Johnson’s ramblings on net-zero.

Anti-plastic PM

Or plastic for that matter. Last week the Teflon PM was burned for his comments on recycling. “Recycling isn’t the answer … it doesn’t begin to address the problem,” he said. “You can only recycle plastic a couple of times really. What you’ve got to do is stop the production of plastic.” 

(Memories here at The Package began to stir of that wonderful clip when coffee cups were in the dock. You know, the one of the aide swoopping to remove a disposable cup the PM had only just been furnished with. “No disposable cups,” she said.)

Johnson called for people to cut back on their use of plastic as “the only answer” and referred to recycling as a “red herring”. Faces across the waste sector turned crimson. He has “lost the plastic plot” the Recycling Association chief executive told BBC Radio 4. 

“Recycling does work and is a critical part of tackling climate change,” explained WRAP CEO Marcus Gover in a tweet. “It takes 75% less energy to produce a plastic bottle made from recycled content compared to new plastic. The prime minister is right that we need to do more with less. That applies to single-use packaging as much as anything else.”

In short, and as the Package has exhorted on numerous occasions, Plastic. Is. Not. The. Problem. Single. Use. Is.

Right to reuse data

It’s not clear from the clips what Johnson’s solution is. (On that front he has form). Perhaps he is now a reusables fanatic (the look from that aide might have been enough)? 

Speaking of which, the European Paper Packaging Alliance has published further, ahem, research claiming single-use saves carbon over reuse in quick service restaurants. We can’t say more than that really as the full LCA hasn’t been published. Should we even be mentioning it? Let’s at least note the 49-page analysis published earlier this year by Upstream showing reuse beats single-use “every time” in foodservice.

The reality is probably somewhere in between but few are willing to budge from their extremes. Such is the nature of public discourse these days. Let’s hope COP26 can provide some much-needed accord on the need to find real solutions to real problems. That would be something to drink to.

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