The issue of plastics finding their way into the natural environment, and the ways in which this could be stopped, has been the source of much debate for many years. However, when the Chinese government announced that it would be banning the importation of plastic waste from January 2018, the issue re-entered the public consciousness like never before. And rightly so; China had been the world’s biggest importer of recyclable materials, including plastic waste, and had rehoused two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports – more than 2.7m tonnes – since 2012, making this a significant announcement.
Around the same time, several supermarkets in the UK announced they were taking steps to reduce the amount of plastic on their aisles, the UK government declared war on plastic with the prime minister announcing that the government hopes to “eliminate all avoidable plastic waste” within 25-years, and consumers demanded to know what impact is the ban going to have in the UK and how can we stop more plastic ending up in the natural environment?
TAKE THE POSITIVES
China’s decision to ban the importation of plastic waste is the correct one and one which is long overdue. In the short term, the decision is sure to lead to concerns from businesses in the UK, as the obvious quick fixes about what to do with the plastic we can longer send overseas – stockpile it, send it to landfill or incinerate it – are neither ideal nor sustainable. But, by simply relying on another country to do all the work for us and make our unwanted plastic disappear, we’ve been masking the underlying problem – that we’ve been deferring responsibility and ignoring our plastic waste problem – for far too long, instead of addressing it head-on. Now, the decision by the Chinese government has brought the issue sharply into focus for businesses in the UK and I actually think this is good news, because the decision is already impacting the UK by creating a ‘positive crisis’ – a situation which is forcing innovation and necessitating more efficient recycling solutions. By generating a call to action and providing a catalyst for urgent change, the actions of the Chinese government is having a positive effect.
Inevitably, it’s not all good news and the public demonisation of plastics in recent months has been harsh and, in some cases, reactionary, grouping all plastic together and giving the impression that all plastics are bad. Clearly this is not the case and conveniently overlooks the good work that plastics have done in revolutionising the packaging industry by creating a vast range of packaging solutions that are able to keep food fresher for longer and help reduce food waste.
NOT ALL BAD
For further evidence of the benefits plastics deliver to the packaging industry, we need look no further than the organisations that have committed to the new plastics economy – the initiative led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to ensure brands, retailers, and packaging companies work towards using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or sooner. The likes of Mars, The Coca-Cola Company and Walmart have all signed up and it is important to note that they are not calling for a ban on plastics, but simply want to ensure that all plastics which are used can be reused, recycled or disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner.
Another of the companies involved, manufacturing giant Unilever, has described the initiative as a move towards the circular economy, one of the most important elements of which is closed loop recycling – the process by which plastics are collected, recycled and used to make new products without them ever needing to leave the loop or be shipped overseas for disposal. As a result, the plastics used in closed loop recycling are often more resource efficient, more cost effective and more environmentally-friendly than their alternatives, and I believe this is where the long-term answer to the problem lies. If a successful change is going to take place, a shift in consumer behaviour away from the traditional ‘Take-Make-Dispose’ system and a move towards a circular economy model is required and, by only using plastics which can be reused and recycled back into themselves an infinite amount of times, we can, over time, overcome the problem of plastic waste.
IN THE LOOP
There are other options, of course – a variety of plastic-free packaging options are already on the market, such as those that consist of corrugate or cartonboard, offering effective, resource efficient alternatives which will also be important in the fight against plastic waste.
As for the UK government’s plan, I believe that its target of eliminating all avoidable plastic waste within 25-years is realistic and achievable – indeed, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is proposing similar action by 2025 and the EU by 2030. However, I believe the speed of implementation will depend on consumers’ appetite for it to occur, and their willingness to change their behaviour regarding waste and recycling. With the issue back in the public eye, consumers’ desire for change is growing rapidly, so there is plenty of room for optimism.
Initiatives like the new plastics economy will also have a part to play in keeping the issue in the public awareness, and an increase in the level of collaboration throughout the supply chain will also be required, beginning at the design stage. But, overall, I believe investment in and adoption of closed loop recycling systems will ensure a sustainable future for plastics in the packaging industry. And, looking even further ahead, we should eventually aim to go further still and seek to extend the concept of closed loop recycling to consumers and waste streams, such as landfill, in order to continue benefiting from the advantages that plastics can offer.