The ways in which the media has covered the plastics debate have sometimes clouded consumer perceptions, to put it mildly. Victoria Hattersley spoke to Libby Peake, head of resource policy at the independent Green Alliance think tank, about its study on the grocery sector’s response to the packaging waste problem, published earlier this year, and the response it has generated.

As part of its work for the Circular Economy Task Force, in early January this year the Green Alliance published a report, ‘Plastic promises: what the grocery sector is really doing about packaging’, which suggested that we are seeing a ‘disjointed and potentially counterproductive approach to solving plastic pollution’, with brand owners on the verge of swapping to other materials that may have even more serious environmental consequences – such as higher carbon emissions.

This is no surprise to us – any regular readers of Packaging Europe will be aware that we have long argued the need for nuance in the plastics debate. That our approach to sustainability should encompass wider issues of climate change, and that tackling plastic waste means viewing the material as a valuable commodity that should be re-used and recycled accordingly, rather than demonizing it. And while shows like Blue Planet II have been fantastic for drawing our attention to the huge global climate challenges we face, they have also unwittingly contributed to the narrative that plastics are the cause of our environmental ills.

On this subject, the reaction to the Green Alliance report edges a wider issue into the frame: the role the media has to play in covering such stories and the partial responsibility it should take when consumers reach inaccurate conclusions. Headlines such as ‘Break the plastic habit!’, while no doubt eye-grabbing, are too simplistic. Unfortunately, it’s usually the case that simple narratives have more impact, and it’s almost impossible to convey such a complex issue in a few words.

 ‘We can’t just replace plastics’

One of the central quotes from the report was this: ‘We are aware that [by switching from plastic to other materials] we may, in some cases, be increasing our carbon footprint.’

“But some of the press coverage [to the report] was not accurate and some headlines – while not being ‘wrong’ – weren’t what we would have chosen and might have led a reader to assume we were saying we should keep using plastic exactly as we had been – that it was an either / or – which doesn’t come close to conveying the nuance of our argument,” says Libby Peake.

According to Libby, one of the biggest frustrations is the assumption, since the emergence of the plastics backlash, that it’s ‘better’ to replace plastics with alternative materials. “One of the most important points we included in the report is that almost everyone now thinks it’s equally important to tackle climate change and plastics. People hadn’t necessarily connected the two before and were looking to separate one from the other. We’re trying to promote that you need to address both in conjunction.

“[Following the plastics backlash] there has been an automatic assumption that plastic should be replaced with other items. But bear in mind that for every tonne of aluminium that is on the market, 12 tonnes of waste is produced and that includes toxic waste. Glass has a really high carbon impact, especially single-use, and if you’re shipping it from far away there are higher carbon emissions. If you’re looking at cartons, they’re often multilayer which makes them difficult to recycle and it’s not a closed loop system. Our report is trying to show not that we should continue using plastics as we have been, but that we can’t just replace plastics in this inefficient recycling system we have. After all, if it’s an inefficient system for plastics it will be inefficient for other materials, too.”

It doesn’t help, of course, that there is an inevitable pushback from those who advocate for these alternative materials. For example, in response to the Green Alliance report, Jenni Richards, federation manager of British Glass, was reported as saying: “While we can’t disagree that glass is heavier… [during transportation], the bigger picture is that glass has the perfect qualities for a truly circular economy and our industry is taking great steps to achieve NetZero carbon emissions.”

And yes, glass has its place too, as does aluminium and cartonboard. No one material should be scapegoated if we are to find an approach to packaging that works across the board and develop more efficient recycling infrastructure.

‘A lot more emphasis on reduction’

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of packaging waste (and that goes for alternative materials as much as for plastics), but one thing Libby Peake is clear about is that there needs to be more of a focus on ‘reduce’ as opposed to ‘replace’. Again, we’re all familiar with the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra but it’s gaining ever more traction.

Take some of the examples we’ve been seeing recently of big brands responding to the plastics outcry by substituting single-use plastic items with other materials which can use up more resources to produce, don’t work as efficiently and are not getting to the root of the problem in any case (the McDonald’s paper straw, to give a particularly well-known instance).

“If you think about it, most adults don’t need to use straws at all,” she says. “We should be encouraging a system where there is a lot more emphasis on cutting out unnecessary items. Then you get similar situations where single-use plastic bags for bakery items are being replaced by single-use paper where there could instead be reusable items or no bags whatsoever.”

And hand-in-hand with reduction, she says, should come a greater simplification of the entire plastics production infrastructure – granted, this will take some time, but the benefits when it comes to recycling and the supply of high-quality recyclate would be considerable. “There’s a tension with plastics in particular; an awareness that we need to rationalize polymers so that we are only using, say, HDPE, PP or PET while phasing out the more ‘niche’ materials like PVC or polystyrene.”

Other countries throughout Europe might also follow the model of places like Norway, which has a notably high quality of recycled plastics because items are collected completely separately so there is less contamination of the supply chain.


Re-use: ‘Great potential’

One positive development, as far as Libby Peake is concerned, is the steady rise of re-use and refill packaging models. There is certainly an increased interest on the part of the industry and consumers, but in order for this to really take off she feels there needs to be more of a focus on incentivization.

“In the UK, for example, the single-use carrier bag charge is meant to reduce littering – which it has done – but we have found that people are still using multi-use carrier bags as single-use. We definitely need more of a cultural shift so we get people using these systems in the right places. Some of the obvious places to start introducing such models include carrier bags, home delivery refill models, the Terracycle Loop model operating on the milkman model, and so on. These offer great potential and we’d like to see them introduced in a systemic way that’s not increasing overall environmental impact and material use.”

What does she have in mind when she talks about incentivization? “Let’s take bags for life: they currently cost 10 pence in the UK, but if you made them much more expensive, they would be more inclined to embed the right behaviours. Or if you make it harder to do single-use – for example charging for plastic coffee cups that are single-use – then it’s more incentivizing for consumers to switch to multi-use. Academic research says people would be more inclined to use reusable coffee cups if there is a charge attached to them.” (In case you’re interested, a report released last year by Zero Waste Scotland is a case in point.)  The key here is to factor environmental cost into the value of a package – not just the money it takes to produce.

‘Unhelpful and misleading claims’

One part of the equation we have not discussed so far is compostable and biodegradable packaging. This is a perfect example of how press reports and also the industry itself can further muddy the waters of consumer understanding.  According to the Green Alliance report, ‘Consumers… are hugely confused about what bio-based, compostable and biodegradable mean’.

Why is this such a problem? “There’s too much greenwashing across the board and very little to stop companies making unhelpful and misleading claims to consumers,” says Libby Peake. “Compostable or ‘biodegradable’ plastics are a particular concern, though, because they are viewed very favourably by the public, but there’s little understanding about what the terms mean, nowhere near enough control over material standards and a lack of the right infrastructure to deal with them in many instances. The UN has suggested that using the term ‘biodegradable’ could actually encourage people to litter. So, we should stop using that term, and make sure that compostables clearly look different from conventional plastic, to make it as simple as possible for people to know what to do with material.”

That’s not to say we should be avoiding compostables altogether – they have great potential – it’s just that they need to be used in the right context.

“Novel materials like compostable plastics have the potential to improve environmental performance in some instances, but only if they’re used in the correct situations and don’t wind up in the wrong place, so it’s important to factor in systems thinking from the start. We think compostable plastic liners for food collection are an obvious place to start.

“There are a couple of major hurdles that need to be addressed for them to succeed generally, though. The first relates to standards and infrastructure. At the moment, material is allowed on the market that isn’t certified compostable, which shouldn’t be allowed. We’ve also heard from several industrial composters that even certified compostable material – particularly rigid plastics – don’t degrade in the UK’s current industrial composting infrastructure, so those existing standards should be adjusted to reflect real life conditions.”

‘Joined-up action’

Of course, the average consumer cannot be expected to be an expert in the labyrinthine ramifications of every packaging material. (Even as someone who writes for the packaging industry I can’t hope to be an inviolable authority on all the myriad technical issues, nuances, debates and counter-debates that encompass the vast packaging industry and all the other industries that feed into it.) But while companies must clearly play their part by remaining transparent about the challenges they face and the environmental costs of the materials they use, it cannot be solely down to the industry to educate them. What is sorely needed, says Libby Peake, is more top-down leadership. (Another quote from the report is worth throwing in here: ‘If I could have a magic wand, I’d like to see more joined up, top-down government intervention… We would like to see government be braver.’)

While the Green Alliance is a UK-based organization and any recommendations it gives as a result of its report are for this market, the conclusions it draws could apply to any country’s recycling system. “Businesses are all competing and developing strategies that go in different directions; at some point there needs to be a homogenous approach. There has been some leadership in the grocery sector with the big players autonomously mandating what should be used, but the body that has the most potential to influence the supply chain is of course the government. We need to level the playing field.”

‘Cautious optimism’

All well and good. But at the risk of labouring a gloomy point, the UK is not – nor perhaps will be for the foreseeable – in a position to give lessons to the rest of Europe on how such things should be done. At a time when what we need is a recognition of our shared responsibilities, the UK is wilfully pulling in the opposite direction. But enough of that subject (for now). Time will tell, they say – only time isn’t necessarily a commodity any of us has in abundance.

So finally, to bring us back to my original question – what’s in a headline? Quite a lot, in fact. At Packaging Europe, as with all other members of the press and all sectors of the packaging value chain, we are not without responsibility to ensure that we discuss environmental issues in as accurate and transparent a way as possible. And no doubt we have fallen short here in the past just like everyone else. We can always strive to do better.

But you’re a writer, you say (well I claim to be), so of course you think language is important. But in such contexts, it’s important for everyone. After all, we’re not talking about the pros and cons of a new kitchen gadget; it’s far more important than that. And we’re firmly in an age of ‘clickbait’ headlines (like the one for this article, some might of course suggest) and where anybody can post whatever they like online and others can take it as gospel. Where there is no requirement to back up what you say on a social media site with fact.

But Libby Peake does voice a note of cautious optimism for the future. “There are more instances now of people thinking about the long-term consequences of knee-jerk reactions to plastic waste, and that you can’t just shift the environmental burden. It’s been a bit of a journey but I believe we’re getting there and I hope things are slowly being pushed in the right direction.”