PLASTICS PACKAGE: WHAT IS PLASTIC?

This month’s Package is considering a rebrand as the battle over definitions gets dirty. By David Burrows

There’s a bit of a to-do going on in Brussels currently as the Single-use Plastics (SUP) Directive is unpacked and picked through. “… it seems that the intent of the directive is now at serious risk of being undermined by one simple question: ‘what is plastic?’” wrote experts from Eunomia, arguably the European Commission’s go-to consultancy on plastics. Just a minor wrinkle, then?

Rather than all the fuss and bluster, the consultants wanted everyone to “stop singling out specific materials, avoid the thorny issue of defining ‘what a plastic is’, and to focus on the impacts of single-use products, and the littering of them, in general”. We have heard that somewhere before

Indeed, here at the Package we have long-held reservations over a bag of laws that hone in on one material rather than all single-use –so much so that we are now considering a rebrand to reflect this. Bespectacled marketers have been employed to spend 14 days and nights pontificating (with each other) over the merits of dropping the word “plastic” from your monthly roundup of packaging news for those in the foodservice and food sector. Watch out for the result in the next column.

Marketers have of course made the most of the anti-plastic movement, but businesses should be wary of greenwashing by pro-plastic lobbyists and anti-plastic NGOs alike. Both sides excel in confusion, rhetoric and what one campaigner referred to as “bullshit”. Speaking of which, two wonderful new terms passed our desk recently: “ocean bound plastics” and “omnidegradable”. Both alerts were placed in the appropriate trash folder.

PAPER POTS

Another favourite this past month sat proudly in the new Alpro vision 2020 sustainability report: packaging that is “recyclable by design”. Danone’s plant-based dairy alternative brand has announced a switch from plastic to paper yoghurt pots. They haven’t yet designed the new pot but because the paper will be from sustainable forests, Alpro is reassuring the press that it does have a low carbon impact. Lower than the plastic one though?

Other plant-based brands also like the idea of paper-based packaging. Theirs is a customer base that is “very aware of their impact on the environment”, DS Smith’s Teresa Del Re told Just-Food. It doesn’t come cheap, though. Alpro is forking out almost £7m to put yoghurts in paper. There have also been reports of brewers taking “years” and spending “millions” on cardboard toppers rather than plastic rings or wraps to hold cans together. A simple question: couldn’t they just be removed altogether?

GONE IN 226 DAYS

Defra meanwhile is chucking cash at new packaging technology. Experts have said they have never seen so much funding sloshing about for plastic and packaging innovation. The idea of making plastic disappear seems to be gaining traction. It started with oxobiodegradable plastics, of course, which the European Commission is banning, and has now moved to “biotransformation” – the UK government has stumped up £1m for further research into a technology that is “absolutely not” the same as oxobiodegradable, according to its inventors at Polymateria.

Indeed, Polymateria has just reached the new British Standards Institution benchmark for biodegradable plastic. The firm, which also funded the PAS 9017 work, hopes the standard will cut through the confusion surrounding the term biodegradable. Its plastic films will be gone in 226 days, while the cups break down in 336 days. But anti-biodegradability platform, the Foodservice Packaging Association, believes the technology would just encourage littering.

Speaking of which: PPE. It’s a single-use disaster waiting to happen. It’s not helped by unscrupulous waste contractors contriving to convince businesses that it needs to be treated as “clinical waste”. It doesn’t: masks, gloves and so on can go into general waste. Unless of course it’s the “plastic-free” stuff that’s “recyclable, home compostable and can decompose naturally if it falls out of the waste stream”. Some we have seen are also certified to EN13432, for industrial composting. Is it a bit of a gimmick? “There wasn’t much they could do when all the QSRs closed,” a spokeswoman for one of the manufacturer’s told us. “They had to make money somehow, and they had loads of materials to use, so it was actually pretty innovative.” She didn’t stop there, either. “Surely [it is] better than a ‘reusable’ visor which can’t realistically be re-used anyway once it has bacteria on it.” Hmmm.

TESCO’S FLEXIBLE FRIEND

In other, dare we say it, more innovative news, Tesco has managed to recycle flexible plastic into food grade packaging for cheese (not to be confused with making cheese that tastes like plastic, of course). This is significant. Flexibles are extremely popular (soft plastics make up nearly a quarter of all plastic packaging by weight, according to Wrap) but notoriously problematic to recycle, especially in closed loops that allow production of packaging permitted to be used for food. Using an “advanced pyrolysis” process, Tesco’s cheese packs will now contain “a minimum” of 30% recycled material.

Many food brands have stretching (though voluntary) targets to include more recycled content in their packaging. There is also the plastics tax coming in the UK which should push progress (though if oil prices remain low and recycled plastic prices continue to climb, virgin material could still look attractive to many).

Foodservice brands have lagged behind their FMCG counterparts but some sweet-talking from WWF seems to be working. McDonald’s uses 2% recycled content, while at Starbucks the figure is 6%. Is the NGO’s Resource: Plastics initiative making progress where others, including EMF and Wrap, have struggled?

PEW-NY EFFORT?

There’s always a bump in voluntary initiatives when legislation is on the horizon but how effective have the initiatives on plastic been (leaving to one side the obvious criticism that they are focused on just one material)? A weighty report from Changing Markets unpicks industry-wide collaborations and corporate commitments. Of Wrap’s Plastics Pact, it noted: just one in three signatories provided an annual update, and of those only one in five had taken action on all targets. Wrap talks of “showcasing achievements”, but Changing Markets warned of “structural flaws” in the approach.

Another weighty but worthy report we are busily wading through, from PEW Charitable Trusts, has also suggested that all these post-Blue Planet actions, taken together, could well fall short of what’s required. Pew has estimated that “commitments by governments and industry will reduce the annual volume of plastic flowing into the ocean by only about 7% by 2040”.

The problem is that most new regulations focus on specific items rather than systemic change, the authors warned, and “do not significantly curb the projected growth in plastic production. Businesses are focused mainly on recycling or otherwise disposing of plastic, but significant efforts are also needed to eliminate its use.” Pew’s experts reckon that the world’s plastic needs for 2040 could be met with “roughly” the same amount of plastic in the system today – which would “essentially decouple plastic growth from economic growth”.

DEFRA’S DARING TARGET

On that front, it was intriguing to read of Defra’s new long-term (15 year) waste targets. Set within the framework of the environment bill there will be waste reduction and resource productivity targets. The former will most likely be presented as a per capita reduction by weight, and could encompass commercial as well as household waste. Reporting on food waste and packaging tonnages could become mandatory. “If businesses admit they use X tonnes of plastic and produce Y tonnes of food waste you get some benchmarking,” said Liz Goodwin from the World Resources Institute.

Resource productivity is a little trickier. “We want to explore measuring resource productivity as a ratio of national economic output e.g. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to raw material consumption,” the government said. “Currently, we discard too many products and materials before their useful life is over. This drives additional resource use and associated greenhouse gas emissions.”

With the targets having to be in place by October 2022, expect another series of consultations – alongside those on deposit return schemes, EPR and the plastics tax that are already behind schedule.

This government likes “big and hairy” targets of course; especially ones for 2037 and left for someone else to worry about (there’s no plan yet to have interim targets). Still, many have welcomed the move to break free from policies focused purely on recycling targets. Perhaps this more liberal approach could be adopted for plastic rules too?

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