The single-use substitution scandal

Businesses and consumers are being greenwashed by anti-plastic NGOs and regulations, says David Burrows.

Ball Corporation, a packaging supplier, is to start building a $200m (£155m) aluminium cup manufacturing facility in Georgia, US. It doesn’t say how many cups the new site will kick out, but it’ll be a lot. They’ll be used everywhere from pubs and universities to restaurants and canteens, and in most cases will replace plastic ones. This is surely a good thing, the press release notes, given that “aluminium is the most sustainable beverage packaging material, and aluminium cans, bottles and cups are easily recycled”.

The “most sustainable” according to who? Ball’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, it seems. "We're increasingly hearing from customers and consumers that they want to do the right thing for the environment, and they need more options," said John Hayes.

The company’s own research shows that 67% of US consumers say they will visit a venue more often if it uses aluminium cups instead of plastic ones. In Europe, 62% would pay more for food products that come in less plastic packaging, according to a poll published by cardboard and carton manufacturer DS Smith last week. Plastic packaging is Europe’s “bête noire”, it concluded. Meanwhile, compostable packaging producer Tipa published research last year showing that 70% of UK shoppers would be more likely to shop with a brand that offers compostable packaging.

But those consumers have simply been greenwashed – and so too have the restaurants, arenas and canteens that are also switching from one single-use packaging material (mostly traditional plastic) to another (cardboard, aluminium, glass or the myriad other novel yet still single-use materials being magicked up). As Neil Parish, chair of the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs committee, put it recently: “Fundamentally, substitution is not the answer, and we need to look at ways to cut down on single-use packaging.”

This isn’t the path that policy is carving, though. Look at the UK’s Environment Bill, for example, which includes charges for items made “wholly or partly of plastic”. Once again the message is: plastic bad; non-plastic good. This is a vote-winning strategy if the consumer surveys above are anything to go by. And it’s brilliant for businesses: rather than completely rethink their models with costly reuse and refill systems that could initially inconvenience consumers, they just switch from plastic to another single-use material. Sure, there might be some additional costs, a bit of customer tension and unintended environmental consequences, but by and large it’s business as usual. EU policy is going the same way (at least currently) and firms are lovin’ in.

Take McDonald’s, which just trialled a “nearly plastic-free” store in Berlin. “We really went all in,” reads the blog. “Edible waffle cups replaced condiment sachets and containers. Paper straws replaced plastic straws. Wooden cutlery replaced plastic cutlery. Sandwiches were wrapped in packaging made from grass, not paper. And Chicken McNuggets were served in paper bags, rather than cardboard boxes.” In other words, all it has done is switch from one type of single-use packaging to others and branded the whole operation “sustainable”. This is greenwash by regulation.

And there is a final pusher of this “plastic bad; non-plastic good” propaganda: NGOs. Not all of them, but a vocal and increasingly high-profile faction, led by A Plastic Planet. “It behoves the plastic industry to confuse people. Recycling is bullshit,” said Siân Sutherland, who co-founded the advocacy group, in an interview with the FT this month. Recycling rates for plastic are certainly crap, but so too are the composting rates for the bioplastics Sutherland is pushing. Her mantra is that nature can’t handle traditional plastic, so let’s look at the other materials it can (so we can keep chucking them in the sea or in landfill regardless of the resource costs?) They’ve even come up with a list – or “resource library” – that includes everything from cardboard and cellulose to glass and (somewhat bafflingly) aluminium.

“The question that we get asked every single day by brands, retailers and packaging designers is ‘what else can I use?’ We recognise that there is a real lack of information out there,” said Sutherland recently. In other words, this isn’t about reducing single-use packaging, it is simply creating different types of single-use packaging – which the likes of Ball, DS Smith and Tipa are lapping up. They don’t even have to advertise because some environmental NGOs are doing it all for them. Happy days.

Ignorance is bliss but here’s the reality: we are heading (fast) to a marketplace where entropy reigns supreme. I’m not saying some of these materials and innovations in single-use packaging are fruitless; rather, they are the low-hanging fruit, the simple material switches we could well live to regret (especially when they’re made under pressure). As recent research for Footprint Intelligence concluded: too much time, energy and money is being spent searching for alternatives to single-use plastic. So which brands have the balls to step away from single-use, whatever the material?


6 Responses

  1. Finally an article which dares to consider the wider picture for sustainable strategy, i doff my preverbial cap!
    We live in a media storm which has focused on demomising both industries and materials without ever questioning the actual offenders. We are a wasteful society and our consumer habits lack the gratitude the planet deserves.
    Its not wrong to look at alternatives but at the right strategic scale as pointed out in this piece. Surely more investment in the infrastructure for waste and the education for consumers will yield far more alongside taking this to a material level.
    We have the tools to measure and manage, why arent we using them to plan ahead?

  2. Thought provoking and well written… thanks for enriching the debate.. P

  3. Many new boards have been emerging in response to the disposable coffee cup issues and we now stock cups with a plastic free aqueous liner which is both home compostable and locally recyclable in all standard paper and board recycling streams. This is the biggest breakthrough in the coffee cup sector in over quarter of a century and will likely be the cup of choice for most coffee shops by the end of 2020. No PE lining means these cups don’t need to be collected in and trucked for specialist recycling. No PLA lining means these cups don’t need to be collected in and trucked for industrial composting. All areas of the UK can recycle these locally and even if they end up in landfill, which sadly most cups still do currently, they will fully decompose in a matter of weeks.

  4. Great article. Common sense is out there! I have seen Sian deliver a talk and I was shocked by the amount of mistruths that she delivered. She is either an ignorant lady or a lady seizing an opportunity to make money and a name for herself. All incredibly disappointing as so many people are lapping up this nonsense.

  5. You are so right BUT how do we get that message to the public
    The BBC and media will not promote the facts as it contradicts their previous agenda
    E G Ali may be recycled but it’s manufacture is one of the most energy intensive polluting processes on Earth
    There is currently 2.5Billion tonne of non treatable toxic waste from Alu manufacturing on the planet 😎

  6. This article is not taking into account the damaging environmental impact of single use plastic packaging. Sustainably sourced rapidly renewable plant-based materials that rapidly decompose if they inadvertently end up in the natural environment are one of the solutions that will allow us to continue to enjoy the convenience of modern life without damaging ecosystems. The belief that single-use anything is unsustainable is not based on facts or evidence because if it was, it would be obvious to see that single-use packaging is prevalent in nature. Silk cocoons package and protect caterpillars whilst they transform into a butterfly – the cocoon does not pollute the environment, its production does not deplete resources, this is one of many examples of sustainable single-use packaging found in nature. This is the vision for the circular economy, materials flow in closed loops and the generation of waste is minimized. Bio-based materials will ideally tap the waste feedstock from other value streams (e.g. agricultural waste. So before the benefits of single-use packaging for foodservice and food packaging are discounted in favour of a reuse model, it would be prudent to first investigate some of the potential alternative options with usage cycles that are fully restorative by design and intention. Regenerative materials that are restorative by nature/design have the potential to replace more complex materials that are harder to reuse in large and materials-intensive applications. Bio-based materials generated using by-products from other processes as feedstocks could provide sustainable solutions for single-use packaging without sacrificing convenince.