Plastic and food packaging, the 2020 update

It’s now two years since I first blogged about food waste and packaging. At the time, I didn’t realise that what I said was going to be so controversial. In essence, it was clear to me from reading some of the academic literature that plastic food packaging plays an important role in protecting food from damage and decay, and also that from the perpsective of both climate change and marine ecosystem health, avoiding food waste is more important than avoiding plastic waste. It is also obvious from LCA studies that in most cases, plastic is a much better packaging material than paper, glass or other alternatives. I don’t want to rehash the same points I made back then in detail, but if you’re interested, the series of posts is available from here.

However, a few things have changed over the last couple of years, and my personal thinking on the matter has moved on a bit as well, so it’s an issue I am revisiting, albeit with some trepidation. So what’s improved, and what hasn’t?  

Shift 1 – the Climate Emergency

A combination of Extinction Rebellion, Climate Emergency declarations, the influence of Greta Thunburg and the increased prominence given to zero carbon targets it feels like public attitudes to the environment have shifted, from what seemed depressingly like a myopic focus on plastic and what manufacturers and retailers should be doing about it, to a broader sense of the scale of environmental action needed, and the fact that it’s up to all of us to make changes rather than just government and big business. The myopia and blame shifting is the thing that made me saddest about the plastic debate, so I am really glad that we seem to have moved on from it. Most people I talk to do seem to be aware that plastic is a very small part of a big problem, and so I’m optimistic that we don’t have too much moral balancing occuring as a result of our plastic obsession.  

Shift 2 – China and the fate of plastic waste

The biggest change in the last couple of years has been the after-effects of the Chinese ban on imports of plastic waste. It’s estimated that since 1992, China and Hong Kong between them had imported a total of 72.4% of global waste plastic  but this came to an abrupt halt in 2018 when the Chinese govenrment implemented a de facto ban on importing plastic waste (technically imports are still allowed, but with a 99.5% purity requirement, which effectively amounts to a ban). Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Indonesia have largely stepped into the role of importing our plastic waste, with huge costs to their local environments (see here). We should also remember that there is no guarantee that the exported material is recycled at all, as reported by the National Audit Office in 2018. In the long term the most likely solution is fewer international plastic waste shipments, and more plastic being incinerated within Europe.

The sheer variety of polymers, compositions and colours of plastics means that mechanical sorting at recycling plants will never be effective, and therefore we have a choice between exporting it to countries where labour is cheap enough for hand sorting to be viable, incinerating plastic more locally, or in the long term fundamentally redesigning waste collection systems. Over the next few years we may also see the recycling of plastics into chemicals (reviewed here). Chemical plastic recycling is shaping up to be a major redefinition of what is regarded as ‘recycling’, and the environmental cost-benefits are yet to be determined. My fear is that it will be used as justification to allow consumption to continue unabated.

Until we get to the point where we co-design plastic products with the collection and management infrastructures required to reuse or recycle them, we are unlikly to see any increase in high quality plastic recycling in the UK. There is relatively little prospect of this happening; capital investment in waste management facilities require them to be operating for at least 10-15 years in order to justify building them in the first place, so without clear and stable policy and regulatory steer we will continue to collect low quality materials at kerbside and struggle to recycle them into plastic of any value. To quote from a recent review into the politics of plastic waste management by Gregson and Crang (2019)

What remains tacit here is the process of economization that underpins the UK’s municipal waste infrastructure. This has converted a statutory public service into a private asset capitalised through unpaid household labour (that in the UK has to be cajoled into sorting waste into even rough categories e.g. landfill, recyclables and (sometimes) organic food waste), least cost collection systems that move that more-or-less sorted material from households and businesses to facilities, which then sort that material, but only sufficiently to produce low grade materials sold into the commodity markets. To turn that infrastructure into a system for producing quality recovered materials will require nothing short of a write-off of existing systems of collection and of capital plant, and their replacement with technologies and labour that treat, rather than merely sort, materials.

Shift 3 – product development

The public clamour that ‘something must be done’ about plastic packaging has resulted in a lot of work being done by manufacturers, under the banner of ‘the Plastic Pact’. An initiative led by WRAP, it is estimated that the businesses signed up to the Pact are responsible for around 80% of the plastic packaging sold in UK supermarkets. The Plastic Pact roadmap sets out challenges and actions and has ambitious targets to be achieved by 2025:

  1. Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single use packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models.
  2. 100% of packaging to be reusable, reyclable or compostable.
  3. 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted.
  4. 30% recycled content in plastic packaging.

The overall level of ambition is impressive, and if it succeeds it will be a game changer. The extent to which it’s achievable is questionable, particularly with regard to the degree of investment required in collection and treatment infrastructure. It would almost inevitably require systems that turn plastic into chemicals to be classified as recycling. The likelihood of unintended consequences and environmental disbenefits is high, but it’s certainly an initiative to watch.  

Tentative signs of progress? – generation of food waste

One of the persisting myths about food waste is where it occurs. We are quick to blame supermarkets, but when was the last time you went into a supermarket and were happy that they had run out of the product you wanted? This is what you are asking for if you want supermarkets not to waste food; it is consumer demand and it’s variability that drives the need for a slight excess of supply. In practice, supermarkets are exceptionally good at not wasting food; in Europe, around 50% of food waste occurs in the household, with just 5% occuring at the wholesale and retail stage (see the pie chart in a previous blog post). Data from UK supermarkets suggests that their food waste as a percentage of sales is between 0.02% and 1.25%. Impressively low.

So we only have ourselves to blame for food waste (unless we blame supermarkets for exploiting our gullibility and forcing us to buy too much?). There are tentative signs of progress, as reported by WRAP, who coordinate initiatives via the Courtauld Commitments, although they are justifiably cautious as to whether this is a consistent downward trend given the stagnation in levels of household food waste between 2010 and 2017 and the problems inherent in measuring a small change against a backdrop of a highly variable quantity. The WRAP report cites various potential reasons for the decrease, including improved date labelling on packaging, an increased number of Local Authorities collecting food waste separately, and a variety of marketing campaigns. Nevertheless, we are still throwing away our body weight in food over the course of a year, so there is plenty of room for improvement.

2019 saw a new review published on consumption level interventions to reduce food waste. The study emphasises; a) the difficulty of getting good data on the effectiveness of interventions to reduce food waste; b) the risk of unintended consequences such as people avoiding throwing food away by over-eating; c) the number of interventions that are promoted based on very weak evidence, and d) the importance of understanding the social complexities of food waste. On the last point, the paper references a fascinatingly indepth Australian study that illustrates the rich variety of ways in which people use their refrigerators. Nobody sets out to deliberately waste food – instead it is a consequence of habits and practices that we need to understand in order to tackle. We need a LOT more social scientists involved in solving this problem.

Still no progress – recycling is not a licence to consume

You’d be forgiven for thinking that recycling is important; the ubiquitousness of kerbside separation schemes in the UK means that we have tangible reminders on a weekly if not daily basis. However, recycling is quite literally the last thing you should be doing; if your recycling bin is full, you should be buying less stuff, not giving yourself a pat on the back for being good about separating your waste! The reality, particularly with post-consumer plastic waste, is that the recyclate is virtually always turned into a lower grade product, or one that it then not recycled at the end of it’s life, so we are merely delaying the inevitable. It should be obvious that the difference between product A (made of virgin material) and product B (made of recycled material) is ALWAYS going to be much smaller than assessing whether or not you truly needed the product in the first place. This seems particularly true of products made from recycled material, which are often eco-bling. ‘Made from recycled material’ is simply another marketing ploy, but the waste hierarchy of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ remains a difficult idea to sell when we are so embedded in a society based on ever increasing consumption of stuff.  I’m not saying don’t recycle, simply that we should be mindful of how minor a part of the solution it is. The best way of wielding power in this regard is simply to buy less stuff. 

Image result for ecobrick
Eco-bricks (plastic bottles stuffed with waste plastic). I know objects made from eco-bricks are meant to be fun and educational rather than necessarily functional, but that’s a commonly used last-ditch argument made when the maths doesn’t stack up.

Still no progress, or getting worse – purchases of plastic

Perhaps the most depressing thing that’s emerged over that last two years is that despite the public clamour that ‘something must be done’, we are actually buying more plastic than we used to. A 2019 survey of UK supermarkets by EIA and Greenpeace indicated that supermarket sales of plastic have actually gone up rather than down. It would be easy to blame this on manufacturers and retailers for not giving us plastic free options, but there are more persistent problems. The much lauded 5p plastic bag tax has indeed led to a reduction in so-called ‘single use’ carrier bags, but our purchase of the heavier duty ‘bags for life’ has sky rocketed; sales of these in 2018 amounted to 54 per household. It seems as if the simple practicalities of sturdier bags with more comfortable handles and the fact that they’re still relatively cheap, means that  we’ve not yet managed the behavioural shift of remembering to take bags to the supermarket.  

Two years of progress?

So where does this leave us? The plastic debate certainly seems more nuanced than it was in 2018, and there seem to be more people aware that alternatives to plastic are not necessarily better. But to me, plastic packaging is better seen as a symptom of something more problematic rather than a cause of problems in itself. We cannot simultaneously expect food to be grown or produced to a high standard and then complain that it is in protective packaging in order to get it to us. If you want unpackaged fruit and veg, grow your own and take the accompanying reality check; you will quickly work out the limits of seasons and just how difficult it is to ensure continuous supply. Our failure to take simple actions to reduce food waste in the home, and to take reusable bags to the supermarket remain depressing. On the other hand, initiatives such as the Coultaurd Commitment and the Plastics Pact give reasons for optimism. I would love to believe that in a few years time we won’t be talking about plastic any more.

6 thoughts on “Plastic and food packaging, the 2020 update”

  1. Re chemical recycling: “My fear is that it will be used as justification to allow consumption to continue unabated.” Thank you for this, I have felt alone. I got in a debate with Joel Mackower about his, and his criticism of those who booed BP for proposing a “game-changing recycling technology.” I learned from one of his employees that he sent my article around as proof that “you can’t please those environmentalists.” But I am absolutely convinced, writing:

    “This sham of a circular economy is just another way to continue the status quo, with some more expensive reprocessing. It is the plastics industry telling government, “Don’t worry, we will save recycling, just invest zillions in these new reprocessing technologies and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic.” It ensures that the consumer doesn’t feel guilty buying the bottled water or the disposable coffee cup because after all, hey, it’s now circular. And look who is behind it – the plastics and recycling industry.”

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    1. Hi Lloyd, thanks for this.

      I think there probably is some merit in the CE concept (it’s something I’m thinking about quite a bit at the moment, in relation to a government consultation), but I’m no fan of the way it’s been framed by the Ellen McArthur Foundation et al, who certainly seem to be on the side of business as usual. I can send you some references (on the better thinkers in CE) if you like?

      But I definitely share your nervousness about how chemical plastic recycling is potentially shaping up. I see no prospect of the UK’s plastic promises being met without it, but it seems like a guaranteed way of locking us into a completely non-circular economy. On the bright side, here in the UK we have WRAP coordinating much of the plastic work, and they have a long history of doing high quality studies on methodology, LCA etc in relation to waste management, so if there are significant disbenefits to chemical plastic recycling, this will certainly be relayed to government and policy makers.

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