Thursday, 09 Jan 2020 12:08 GMT

Plastic alternatives: More harm than good?

A new report commissioned by environmental charity and think tank Green Alliance suggests that current efforts to minimise plastic packaging waste could actually be having a negative impact on the environment.

According to recent research by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency, UK supermarkets put at least 59 billion items of single use plastic packaging on the market each year.

With the supermarket sector under intense scrutiny for their use of plastic packaging, the report looked at the changes that have been made such as the introduction of alternative materials and the removal of plastic altogether.

The report found that the proportion of plastic packaging found on supermarket shelves in the UK and the amount collected as waste and reported to the Environment Agency has not altered significantly.

Where plastic packaging has been removed and replaced, concerns have been raised about the negative impact these are having on the environment and the lack of research involved in these new solutions.

An approach is needed that capitalises on the growing public awareness of plastic pollution and starts to address material use more holistically

Some examples of these are the use of glass bottles contributing to higher transport pollution due to their heavier weight, and paper bags emitting higher carbon emissions than plastic bags.

The report spoke to anonymous representatives from five of the UK’s major supermarkets and representatives from major consumer goods and beverage companies.

It says: “Worryingly, the brands report that decisions to switch away from plastic are often made without considering the environmental impact of the substitute materials chosen, or whether or not there is adequate collection and treatment infrastructure in place for them.”

According to one supermarket representative, consumers have called for soft drink plastic bottles to be replaced with glass or tetra paks which aren’t recycled [in the area]. The same respondent says: “There is not a lot of joined up thinking going on”.

Supermarkets are believed to be holding back on reducing plastic

The report suggests that this awareness of potential negative consequences could be contributing to the slow rate at which supermarkets are removing the use of plastic packaging.

Another concern is that switching to ‘bio-based’ and compostable packaging could lead to further confusion amongst consumers.

While the majority of consumers believe compostable packaging to be more environmentally friendly than its plastic, glass and cardboard counterparts, this type of packaging actually requires specialist recycling facilities.

Many of those we spoke to were wary of simply rushing away from plastic towards other single use materials, only to have caused different environmental impacts

In conclusion, the report says: “Many of those we spoke to were wary of simply rushing away from plastic towards other single use materials, only to have caused different environmental impacts. Despite this, some shifts are already taking place that may not prove to be sustainable and the approaches from different companies are sometimes incompatible.

“An approach is needed that capitalises on the growing public awareness of plastic pollution and starts to address material use more holistically. As industry, the government and society together decide what to do about plastic pollution, the solutions must address the systemic problems of our throwaway society, to avoid the risk of simply substituting current environmental problems with new ones.”

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