Plastic has suddenly gained bad press.
Plastic in the ocean has been highlighted as an ecological disaster, graphically filmed as part of the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 series.
So, what are we to do?
There is little doubt that the sheer quantity of plastic going into our oceans is a very serious issue, which must be tackled. However, it is not plastic that is at fault; it is us, the human race, although the Daily Mail thinks it is local authorities, because we don’t all collect pots, tubs and trays.
Until we start taking collective responsibility across the world for our actions, I fear little will change. We have to start somewhere, however, and in my view that has to start with packaging buyers and suppliers taking more responsibility. By the time we take the material from householders, it is almost too late.
Plastic should be simple to recycle, as is the case with most other packaging materials such as glass, metal or aluminium but the sheer number of polymers used, not to mention the different grades necessary, say, for packaging food safely, means it is difficult to achieve demand-led reprocessing operations. In some cases, this has been achieved: plastic bottles made from high-density polythene and polyethylene terephthalate have value and sustainable markets, but others don’t; hard plastics, as well as pots, tubs and trays are still an issue.
Now the environment secretary Michael Gove has intervened, and recently convened a roundtable of stakeholders to discuss the issue.
To get the ball rolling he has posed five questions for the industry:
- How can we reduce the demand for plastic in the first place?
- How can we drive simplification so we’re not only reducing the amount of but also the types of plastic used?
- How do we ensure that what we are producing is recyclable and recycled?
- What interventions do we need to have in order that people are incentivised to make the right choices and how can consumers play their part?
- How can the system support and enable local authorities and other waste managers to play their part?
This is a positive step by government, and one local authorities should support and contribute to in a positive way. There has been a lot of work done already throughout the supply chain, and some key retailers have been saying for over a year that they want to reduce the number of polymers used in packaging; Marks & Spencer, for instance, said it will only use a single polymer in its packaging by 2025.
So, will plastic have a future? I am told some producers are already considering moving away from plastic and back to more traditional materials such as metal and glass. I think, however, that plastic will continue to play a major part in our lives but must be dealt with more responsibility. That means all of us within the supply chain taking responsibility, but particularly producers. We have to accept that recycling it may not always be the answer, and energy from waste might be the most effective way to deal with certain types of plastic.
Andrew Bird, chair, Local Authority Recycling Committee