Plastics Package: Turkish troubles and German ingenuity

This month’s musing accepts that we can’t recycle ourselves out of crises and doffs its Tyrolean hat at mandatory reusable packaging laws.

With only 1,200 words to play with, let’s light the touch paper in this month’s incinerator-hot column with the following from a paper in the Wires Water journal: “… the current discourse on plastic waste overshadows greater threats to the environment and society at a global scale.”

Feisty. The authors, led by experts at the University of Nottingham, noted how plastic pollution has been “exploited” by politicians and businesses: products with less or no plastic have been touted as ‘green’ while “small political gestures” – such as bans on some single-use plastic items, financial incentives for reusable packaging and charges on plastic bags – risk “instilling a complacency in society towards other environmental problems that are not as tangible as plastic pollution”.

And right on cue came last week’s doubling of the plastic bag charge in England to 10p. Everyone wants to play their part in reducing the scourge of plastic waste that blights our environment and oceans. The 5p bag charge has been hugely successful, but we can go further,” said environment minister Rebecca Pow.

Quite a lot further, if you ask Greenpeace. The green group this month mocked the current administration’s baby steps on tackling the issues in hand with a new ad (which received the thumbs up from some in the disposable packaging sector). That followed hot on the heels of its new report that found “British grocery packaging in piles of burning and smoking plastic” in Turkey.

Turkish fright

Turkey took 12,000 tonnes of UK plastic waste in 2016; last year that had shot up to almost 210,000 tonnes as other countries in Asia followed China in closing their ports to certain materials. This is a country that, according to OECD 2018 data, recycles or composts just 10% of its waste (against an OECD average of 36%). What’s more, almost half of the UK’s plastic waste exports are either mixed plastic, styrene or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – materials that are “not easily or widely recycled”, Greenpeace noted.

Something had to give, and it quickly did. A few days after the report, Turkey announced it was banning most types of plastic imports, further limiting the options for UK plastic waste and forcing us, in Greenpeace’s words, “to take responsibility... and recycle [our] own materials". Good work, Greenpeace.

This kind of attention (and exposure) has been useful, bringing unprecedented engagement with environmental protection. But have campaign groups, like businesses and politicians, “exploited” plastic pollution? Some large NGOs now have teams dedicated to plastic pollution, having not given the issue a thought pre Blue Planet. The issue has also spawned new single-issue groups.

But if plastic continues to be prioritised (above all else), might we miss an opportunity to tackle other issues such as biodiversity loss and climate change, as those Nottingham academics suggest? How much longer can we really continue to “side-step the inconvenience of changing the consumption practices at the root of the problem”?

Sense and sustainability

The status quo – that we can recycle ourselves out of the plastic problem and so too others – certainly suits politicians, businesses and us, the public. And this convenient mistruth is already sticking, it seems.

Perils of Perception, a recent survey of 21,000 people in 30 countries by Ipsos Mori for the Financial Times, showed that 69% felt they “understand what action I need to take to play my part in tackling climate change”. And the top-scoring action from a list of nine was of course ‘recycling as much as possible’.

Some 59% chose it, followed by buying energy from renewable sources (49%) and replacing a car with an electric or hybrid (41%). None of these should be sniffed at – every little helps – but none are in the top three most effective actions. Recycling comes seventh in the list of nine options in terms of CO2e saved (0.2 tonnes, according to data in a 2017 study by Lund University).

Far and away the most effective action is to have one fewer child, which saves 58.6 tonnes CO2e. Next is not having a car (2.4 tonnes), followed by avoiding one long distance flight (1.6 tonnes), buying renewable energy (1.5 tonnes) and changing to that hybrid/electric car (1.1 tonnes). Eating a plant-based diet saves 0.8 tonnes. “The public seem to have got the message when it comes to the importance of recycling, but the reality is . . . the actions that need to be taken require significantly bigger sacrifices,” Kelly Beaver, managing director of public affairs at Ipsos Mori, told the FT.

Lid litter

The latest focus is set to be disposable cup lids. Cafés frequented by The Package already appear to be hiding away lids (as they do straws). And 87% of people quizzed recently by ButterflyCup – an all-in-one “plastic-free”, “recyclable” and “compostable” cup – felt lids are a significant source of environmental pollution and litter. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall should note: 73% of us want the pesky lids banned.

Tommy McLoughlin, ButterflyCup CEO, called it a “waste lid crisis”. He wrote about it for The Independent (the Foodservice Packaging Association has challenged some of the comments made), calling out the high street brands that have been “slow to accept responsibility for the waste they generate” (and also to accept pitches to procure his cup?). “The problem is no longer that there are no sustainable alternatives to plastic-coated takeaway cups,” he wrote. “In fact, perhaps for the first time ever, both the sustainable alternatives and the public desire to utilise them exist.” 

By “sustainable alternatives” we presume he is talking about his own cup rather than reusables. Eagle-eyed readers will note that, two paragraphs above, The Package admitted to using disposable cups. Have we no shame, or have we secured a new sponsor for the column? No (but interested parties should write to the usual address). In fact, it’s because café owners are once again nervous about accepting reusables. This was the case 12 months ago, as Footprint reported, but normal service soon resumed for many outlets. Further reassurance from the powers that be might help.

German innovation

Still, there are renewed efforts to encourage reuse. McDonald’s is due to pilot a deposit and return scheme with Loop sometime this year. More recently, Morrisons reintroduced its refillable container service at fresh fish and meat counters – a scheme that was launched in 2018 but put on hold during the first 12 months of the pandemic. Some Twitter users claimed the move “unhygienic” and others in the industry have been watching “with interest”, we are told.

Those starting refill trials are prepared for nervous customers and short-term sales figures that “might not be very representative of future potential”, one insider told us. But momentum remains in the private sector even if the government continues to drag its feet.

In Germany, meanwhile, amendments to the packaging law were this month adopted by the Bundestag (comparable to the House of Commons here) that will require cafés and restaurants to offer reusable containers for their take-away products from 2023. It will now go to the Bundesrat (a bit like the House of Lords). “One-way packaging is still the rule for delivered food,” said environment minister Svenja Schulze, who wants “to make reusable the new standard”.

Dehoga, the German hotel and restaurant association, has suggested the regulations come at an “inopportune time”, according to the website Food-service.de.

Playing it safe

Disposable packaging is of course as cheap as the chips, sandwich or coffee it protects; so as foodservice struggles to get back on its feet the temptation will be to turn to single-use in the interests of consumer ‘safety’.

Packaging firms continue to push this message hard. Take this from a recent Huhtamaki statement on the “essential role” of disposable packaging in modern food systems. “The packaging industry […] has facilitated the availability of safe, hygienic and secure food products across the EU and elsewhere. Indeed, the European Environment Agency, confirmed that single-use food packaging “played an important role in preventing the spread of covid-19.”

That isn’t quite the sum of what the EEA said, which was: “While disposable plastic products have played an important role in preventing the spread of covid-19, in the shorter term, the upsurge in demand for these items may challenge EU efforts to curb plastic pollution and move towards a more sustainable and circular plastics system.”

The devil, as ever, is in the detail. The trouble with the detail is that sometimes it causes us to miss the bigger picture.

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