Unwrapping the Packaging Problem

As the UK government introduces new controls on single use plastic and confirms a ban on plastic straws and drinks stirrers, FMCG brands are under huge pressure to help tackle the plastic problem. We know that over 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year – an estimated 40% of which is used just once – and there is huge opportunity for brands to lead the change with innovative initiatives to encourage this rising tide of plastic to turn.

To understand the problem (and begin thinking about solutions!), we headed down toThe British Library to hear from Mark Miodownik MBE, British materials scientist at UCL, about plastic packaging materials.

Joined by Julie Schneider and Daniel Webb – creators of Margate’s infamous ‘Everyday Plastic’ Mural-by-the-Sea, Miodownik kicked off the panel discussion by reminding us of the history and creation of plastic and its role in defining 20thcentury culture in the UK.  It is hard to believe that plastic was, in part, developed as a solution to environmental issues such as using elephant tusks for making hairbrushes…

Today however, single use plastic pollution has fast become an environmental epidemic and unnecessary waste of valuable resource. To recap the definition of ‘single use plastic’, it refers to any plastic items intended to be used just once before they are thrown away[1].  Plastic packaging is officially recognised as is the largest end-use market segment, accounting for just over 40% of total plastic usage. Take a second to think about plastic bags: more than one million bags are used every minute.

But what happens after we throw this innovative, high-tech, and highly practical product away?

On average, only 4% of our waste is recycled, and much of what is purchased as “recycled material” is bought into the UK from overseas.  Many ‘recycled’ plastic packaging products are in fact created from a blend of old and new plastic to reduce costs, and some others cannot be recycled at all.

Furthermore, as quickly as compostable and bio-degradable plastic had offered a solution to brands wanting side-step the plastic debate, we have learnt that creating new materials isn’t always the solution.  In fact, reports that have unveiled the absence of a national composting processing industry[2]expose these sustainable ‘solutions’ as greenwashing.

So, what are the changemakers doing, and who is supporting initiatives that encourage recycling and working collaboratively as part of the grocery industry and beyond?

This month has seen Waitrose and Morrisons trial zero waste food departments, and just this week Sainsbury’s launched a ‘plastic bag free’ fruit aisle[3].  TerraCycle have also announced record expansion, indicating more UK consumers than ever before are looking to buy into new schemes and initiatives, and countless independent and big-name brands are continuing to grow profits whilst still closing the loop on sustainable production.

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