The single-use substitution scandal (Part II)

An ongoing obsession with plastic over other single-use materials risks undermining plans for a circular economy. Three years on from Blue Planet it’s time for some blue sky thinking, says David Burrows.

This time last year, Footprint ran a story: “The single-use substitution scandal”. In it, we argued that the policies in the pipeline to deal with single-use plastic were parochial; designed to hone in on one material rather than all. We suggested this was a missed opportunity to deal with disposables (especially in the food-to-go and grocery sectors) that would merely direct firms away from plastic and towards paper, aluminium, glass and so on.

Others have been making this point for months now. “Fundamentally, substitution is not the answer, and we need to look at ways to cut down on single-use packaging,” said Neil Parish, chair of the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee last year. He cited issues already arising – for example with compostables that have been “introduced without the right infrastructure or consumer understanding about how to dispose of them”.

As the environment bill returned to parliament this month the debate on short-sighted single-use policies bubbled up again. Within the bill there are powers to charge for single-use plastic items – a narrow mindedness that is “potentially worrying”, according to Libby Peake, head of resource policy at the Green Alliance think tank. “There are lots of other materials with impacts that could be avoided if the bill took a bigger view towards that sort of thing,” she told the public bill committee in March.

Sift through the committee’s discussions on the bill and the issue crops up time and again. Alan Whitehead, Labour’s shadow minister for energy and the green new deal, has grilled most witnesses on the topic. “We need to make a decision on what this is about. Is it about single-use items, or is it about plastic items?” he said last week as the committee ran through potential amendments. It seems it’s about plastic.

The committee voted (eight to four) not to amend schedule 9 clause 52 of the bill, which covers the charges to items “made of plastic or any other single-use material”. This isn’t the end of course. Last week, a number of business organisations, including the Aldersgate Group, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and IOM3, the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, also backed an amendment to incorporate all materials. “As it stands, the power is unnecessarily short sighted and could simply create new environmental problems rather than eliminating them,” wrote IOM3 chief executive Colin Church in a blog.

The government’s ambition for a circular economy could also be undermined, he warned. This is a critical point, and it’s worth reiterating: the regulations thus far do little to encourage reduction in single-use items (other than those made of plastic) or inspire the reuse revolution that Wrap first trumpeted back in 2009. Wrap now runs the UK’s Plastics Pact – a commitment again focused on plastic and in which actions on reusables are lost within a target to make all plastic packaging recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. Flick through the latest progress report and there is little action on reuse.

Indeed, look around the foodservice and grocery sector and many businesses have placed huge emphasis on switching materials. Supermarkets have told Green Alliance researchers of kneejerk reactions to exit plastic with little consideration of the environmental impact of the substitute material. While caterers last year told Footprint that they are being contractually obliged to use compostable packaging despite a lack of suitable disposal routes.

An update on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global plastic commitment, published earlier this month, shows similar problems in that scheme. In 2019, just 1.9% of the plastic packaging used by signatories was reusable. “Everything elimination-related is mainly driven by substitution to other materials rather than really fundamentally redesigning the system to reduce the need for packaging in the first place,” EMF’s Sander Defruyt told the FT.

Brands seem to be struggling to think about reuse and sticking with single-use. In a way it’s hard to blame them. The public is pressing them to ditch plastic, so too are NGOs (at least the ones with romantic and unrealistic notions of a plastic free world).

And in a world where populism reigns politicians have taken their cue: they have drawn up regulations that do little more than feed this notion that all plastic is bad and everything else is good – even if it’s disposable. As one senior industry executive suggested to me the other week: compostables have become a favourite amongst the public (and foodservice brands) but essentially it’s an “elegant way to throw something away”. The mining involved in aluminium, the weight of glass, the paper mills and trees needed for card all need to be factored into decisions. So too the pollution and pitiful recycling record of plastic.

But the first thought, as IOM3’s Church suggested, must be: do I need this at all? Who needs an aluminium can of water when refill stations are popping up all over the place and a refillable bottle is fashionable? Or a disposable coffee cup if there are deposit and return schemes done at scale? Sara Wingstrand, EMF programme manager for innovation, sees plenty of companies look at packaging and say ‘let’s just make it paper’. Instead they should be asking how they can rethink not just the packaging but their whole business model, she says. “We do reuse to decouple from our use of finite resources.”

There are signs of promise and potential – Tesco’s trial with the Loop reuse and refill system is going great guns I am told and the entry of McDonald’s (finally) into this brave new world is significant. But these will take time and money to scale. Well-targeted regulations would have nudged more businesses along more quickly.

What does the UK environment minister think about all this? In her responses last week Rebecca Pow talked of the measures being designed to “focus specifically on single-use, hard-to-recycle plastics”; she then began to waffle slightly about straws and bags before being prompted. “Other single-use items will be addressed through the other myriad measures in the bill, including deposit return and extended producer responsibility. The general ethos of this whole part of the bill is to drive down waste from the very beginning”.

But will it? The likes of Whitehead, Peake, Church, Parish and indeed Footprint all have their doubts.

There are likely to be similar issues as the UK aligns with the EU’s single-use plastics directive – a well-meaning directive designed to target the items that are most commonly found littered in European beaches, but may well just prompt a spree of single-use switches. Wales and Scotland have cracked on with consultations on market restrictions for a range of problem items, including straws, stirrers, polystyrene cups and food containers and cutlery. England, meanwhile, has implemented the plastic straws and stirrers ban (albeit delayed by six months) but packaging firms are already getting twitchy because there’s no other news yet.

This isn’t the end of the story of course. The environment bill hasn’t passed while consultations on the directive are being reviewed (Wales), underway (Scotland) or perhaps pending (England). Ministers’ hands are to a certain extent tied (many have publicly committed to meet or exceed the EU’s environment regulations) but the limitations in the ‘plastic is bad, anything else is good’ approach may not have gone completely unnoticed.

‘Why are only plastic items on the list’, reads a Q&A published on Zero Waste Scotland’s website alongside the consultation. “The Scottish Government recognises that the problems caused by single-use items cannot be solved by replacing them with alternative single-use items made with different materials. While the focus is on the items listed [in the directive], the Scottish Government is committed to monitoring closely the response to these restrictions and assessing what more needs to be done to address our throwaway culture. There is a need to shift behaviour towards reusable alternatives that can be used again and again.”

The problem of plastic pollution thrust packaging into the spotlight, but whether this has really prompted policies that drive a circular economy is debatable. “The danger is that by talking just about plastics, we limit ourselves to being able to control only single-use plastic with this legislation in the future,” said Labour MP Ruth Jones last week as the public bill committee debated the bill. “Two years down the line, the problem might be some other material that is single-use.”

In the race to be seen to be doing something policies and commitments to-date remain stuck on single-use substitution rather than rousing a reuse revolution. Perhaps these remain the initial, important steps, rather than what critics suggest could in fact be side steps. But almost three years on from that Blue Planet programme it’s time for some blue sky thinking from politicians and businesses alike.

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