The chancellor’s announcement on Wednesday of an investigation into introducing charges on single-use plastics in the UK is an interesting prelude to the forthcoming EU Plastics in a Circular Economy strategy document due to be published next month. Certainly, the implementation of a tax or similar measure could significantly reduce the UK’s contribution to the millions of tonnes of plastics waste produced globally each year.
But what about addressing the issue at source? We look to both the UK government and Brussels to more actively promote alternatives on a wider scale.
The EU plastics strategy, in particular, needs to take a holistic view as a crucial part of the answer to reducing plastic waste is using more sustainable materials in the first place. Plastic clearly has a valuable role to play in society today, but action needs to be taken to ensure that the amount used, where not essential to the product’s quality, is dramatically cut down.
We know that plastic can never achieve a circular value chain. It is made from a non-renewable resource and will virtually never biodegrade, which is why it can now be found in the deepest trenches of our oceans where it’ll probably remain forever. To encourage steps towards a circular economy, the grocery and packaging industries need to examine where plastics are currently being utilised, and whether alternative renewable materials such as cartonboard, which is compostable and easily recyclable, can replace them.
Measures need to be put in place to encourage the use of more sustainable materials. Taxation is one option and this was highly effective when the 5p charge was applied to plastic bags. Alternatively, finding ways to encourage the use of more sustainable materials could also see brands reducing the amount of plastic packaging they use.
A quick glance through a supermarket highlights many brands that use plastic packaging when they could turn to more sustainable materials. Take a look at some brands of tea bags, batteries, multipack drinks and stationery, not to mention lots of food products, all of which could be packaged in biodegradable or recyclable alternatives to plastic. The opportunity to achieve quick results and make a significant difference is huge.
We encourage brand owners to review the packaging they are using to identify where they could make a move to more sustainable materials. After 11 million viewers watched a blue whale mourn its newborn, poisoned by its mother’s polluted milk, and judging by the social media and news coverage, consumers clearly want action to be taken. Forward-thinking brand owners will surely already be reviewing their own environmental strategies in a move towards using more renewable and recyclable packaging. If they don’t, governments will act and consumers will vote with their wallets.
It is truly the responsibility of brands and manufacturers to embrace their environmental obligations. I hope to see them take action regardless of whether a UK tax or next month’s EU statement forces their hands.
Tony Hitchin is general manager of Pro Carton