Tackling the plastics monster

How the fight against plastic waste may impact consumers’ lives.

Brands and retailers were quick to make their environmental new year’s resolutions following a ban on plastic waste imports by China at the beginning of this year. Eleven big brands, including Unilever, Coca Cola, L’Oreal, Mars and Walmart, committed to phasing out all packaging that is not reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Two of the major supermarket chains, Iceland and Tesco, also pledged to remove plastic packaging from their own-label ranges, by 2023 and 2025 respectively.

But regardless of whether we replace plastics with organic packaging, introduce better waste collection processes or revolutionary plastic recycling technologies, now that China has refused to serve as the global plastic dumping ground, supermarket shelves are likely to look quite a bit different over the next few years. The ubiquitous black food trays populating chiller cabinets – which mostly end up in landfill as they’re undetectable by sorting machines – are finally falling from grace. Waitrose, for example, has already completely removed black plastic from its fresh fruit and vegetable range.

According to recent statistic, 20,000 plastic bottles are sold globally every second, with less than 50 per cent collected for recycling. Of that, only 7 per cent is actually recycled back into bottles. One exception is Belgian-based ECOVER – initially a niche ecological cleaning product manufacturer, whose products can now be found in many supermarkets. ECOVER uses inconspicuous clear bottles for its washing-up liquid, for example, 100 per cent of which are made from post-consumer recycled plastic, which means their bottles can be recycled again and again. It could be a good example for retailers to follow if they’re serious about reducing the impact of single-use plastics.

Meanwhile, the disgruntled consumers who recently posted empty crisp packets to snack giant Walkers might be pleased to hear of the work of Two Farmers Ltd, from Ross-on-Wye. The tiny start-up is developing packaging that looks identical to plastic, but is made of sustainably grown eucalyptus pulp and cellulose that will decompose in 26 weeks.

As ever, though, cost is likely to be a sticking point – to begin with, at least – when it comes to uptake of these new processes and products. The sting in the tail is that Two Farmers’ 40g crisp packet currently costs about ten times as much as a plastic one. Israel-based Tipa, meanwhile – another company offering a home-compostable alternative made of biological and synthetic materials – has also admitted to its product being more pricey than good old plastic.

Added to this is the nagging question of how much onus home-composting, and a more varied and potentially confusing selection of domestic waste, puts on consumers. People living in studio flats might be less inclined, or equipped, to compost their crisp packets for months on end.

If revolutionary technology collectively labelled as chemical recycling – which can crack complex (or contaminated, previously unrecyclable) plastic into various types of oil or gas – becomes more viable commercially viable, it may mean consumers won’t need to give up on flashy plastic packaging just yet. But the technology comes with its own problems, with existing plastic-to-oil plants in countries such as the Netherlands, Australia and Kenya fraught with controversy. Local communities are concerned about emissions from the plants, as well as the health and safety implications of the huge quantities of fuel stored on the premises. In the UK, there was outcry over a proposed plastics-to-fuel plant in Appley Bridge, Lancashire two years ago, but planning permission has recently been granted for another plant at Rushden in Northamptonshire, despite the local MP delivering a petition opposing it to Downing Street.

The degree to which such objections are down to justified concern, “nimbyism”, or a combination of both is hard to assess. Public Health England (PHE) claims the local population won’t have to face any health risks from the installation of the Rushden plant, but local residents argue that PHE has insufficient evidence to make this claim, as the plant is the first of its kind in Europe.

At this point, it’s difficult to tell which emerging technologies will be viable in the long run. But one thing is for certain: consumers’ lives are bound to be affected by the full-on fight to vanquish the plastic monster one way or another.

© Business Reporter 2021

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