From consumers, suppliers, retailers, governments and even just as mere humans, we’ve all felt compelled to tackle the global plastics problem. The statistics released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 is nothing short of terrifying. And it’s not only the visible pollution but the hidden problems of microplastics and their impact on marine life and the wider food chain.
Of all the global plastics manufactured, over half are used solely for packaging, many only once and failing to be disposed of responsibly. So as an industry, we are rightly facing pressure to examine exactly where we’re going wrong.
The EU commission outlined their Plastics Strategy for a Circular Economy earlier this year, with commitments to make recycling more profitable for business, curb plastic waste, stop littering at sea, drive investment and innovation and spur change across the world. How? By preparing the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive to set requirements and recommendations for member states.
Throughout the report, there are proposals, suggestions, recommendations and referrals to a ‘vision’ but the new rules on waste management have yet to be agreed upon and implemented.
Managing the huge volumes of waste from our ‘throw-away culture’ is nigh on impossible. We are simply manufacturing more plastic than we are able to dispose of. Even with the robust recycling systems in place here in the UK, it’s still not enough. According to Recoup UK only 21% of plastic films and 76% of plastic pots, tubs and trays are currently recycled by local authorities.
Compare these figures to the most polluting countries with no infrastructure, government funding or obligation to control plastic waste and you hit a real problem. In their Plastic Planet feature, National Geographic quoted Ramani Narayan from Michigan State University who suggests that even if Europe and North America managed to recycle all of their waste it would hardly make a dent in the total plastics found in the oceans.
A scary statement, but one that many people need to hear before we commit millions to new collection systems and waste management centres. As well as investing in new biodegradable materials that in fact may do far more harm than existing plastic packaging materials on the market.
The recent media frenzy has sent many consumers, brands and retailers into a spiral of confusion. But the fact of the matter is we can’t simply villainise all plastics in packaging. It’s a naïve and dangerous belief that abolishing all plastic can be an immediate solution to such a complicated and engrained issue.
What we can do is ensure that we always design with the end in mind. We can work to optimise all packaging. We can use a more lightweight material with reduced environmental impact. We can think about the potential for recycling at end of life. We can look at whether we really need to use plastic for single use, throw away formats. We can develop materials that will be accepted in current waste streams, rather than contaminating them.
We can put collective pressure as an industry on the government to invest in improved infrastructure here in the EU, but also further afield in developing countries that need it most. As the statistics suggest that until the worst offending countries waste systems are addressed, Western policies may be futile to tackle the deep-rooted global problem.
Because really, everything can and should be recycled, even if it is burnt for energy, it still has the potential for positive use at end of life.
This month we launched our Sustainability series, outlining our commitment to sustainability as well as providing a free eBook for all our followers on the “Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Packaging”. If you’re looking for more information on the feasible solutions for your packaging today, then we suggest you grab a coffee and settle in with our eBook.