Plastic: are the alternatives any better?

19 February 2020, 09:03 AM
  • With research showing that other options can be equally environmentally damaging, experts discuss how to proceed
Plastic: are the alternatives any better?

Since the BBC’s Blue Planet II documentary aired back in 2017, the message to ditch single-use plastic has become increasingly urgent. Retailers, suppliers and businesses across the food and drink industry have been reducing their use of it. Just recently Iceland launched what was described as an “industry-leading” trial to reduce its plastic packaging by 93% across a range of fresh produce. Retailers are also promising to make the plastics that are used within their stores more widely recyclable. It can be difficult, for example, to recycle black plastics such as those used in ready meal trays.

Single-use carrier bags in particular have come under fire, leading to retailers charging for bags, phasing them out or offering bags made of alternative materials. The core issue with plastic bags is that they take a long time to decompose. According to a 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly report, it can take between 400 and 1,000 years for this process to happen, leading to centuries-long environmental impact. Morrisons, for example, announced last year that it would introduce paper carrier bags in all its stores.

Indie retailers are able to adapt much quicker to consumer demands to reduce plastic and implement necessary changes than large scale operations, however. Nick Punter, marketing and design coordinator at Suffolk Food Hall, says that the business has been proactive; “I think most people in the industry are demanding less plastic, which is a positive move; we hope that this continues and we keep on reducing plastic use (especially single-use). Shoppers have reacted positively to the steps we have implemented, especially the use of paper bags in grocery and at the till. It will always be tough to convert customers when it comes to takeaway cups and to incentivise them to bring their own, but we are always looking to improve and we ask customers what we can do and take on board their feedback and suggestions,” he says.

In May last year the government confirmed that a ban on plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds containing plastic will come into force for England from April 2020.

With all eyes on plastic, the impact of alternative materials has been less publicised, but there is now an increased awareness of the effect production of these materials has on the environment, which means that navigating the best course of action can be tricky for retailers. Research published in a recent report by Green Alliance highlighted public demand pushing the swap from plastics to alternative materials, with a supermarket representative quoted as saying that these alternatives “aren’t necessarily better from an environmental and climate impact point of view.”

When it comes to the environmental impact of producing plastic bags and paper bags, the 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly report says that “It takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag”. A report by the Ministry of Environment and Food in Denmark found that cotton bags need to be reused thousands of times to reach the same environmental performance of plastic bags.

Helen Bird, plastics expert at WRAP says, “When we make decisions about materials, including when weighing up what material to use for bags, we have to consider all the environmental impacts. It is never straight forward and there are always trade-offs. Considerations include greenhouse gases, not just in production but through to end of life, renewables versus fossil fuel derived, whether recycled material can be incorporated in making the packaging, whether the material is practically recyclable and whether that bag/packaging can be used again.”

Ethical water company BELU says that it is the first UK company to make all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic bottles. CEO Karen Lynch says, “We have come to the conclusion that where the single use can’t be removed, the answer to our anti-plastics challenge, is in fact, plastic. Our message is to first use less, but when you buy bottles, buy better. Using 100% recycled plastic is the lowest carbon footprint option that can be part of a circular economy.” By making bottles from 100% recycled plastic it reduces carbon emissions, as it uses a resource that is already there and energy is not being used in creating something new.

Karen adds, “From the start we wanted to be a values-led business; and to build a confident and credible brand that customers can trust implicitly. This means transparency. So it was an obvious step for us to approach carbon emissions in the same way that we do our financial data; it is measured, audited and published. Choosing to be PAS2060 certified also ensures we publish our forward plans and commitments to reduce carbon. Understanding where our carbon emissions are generated focuses our efforts on where we can make reductions.”

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