There is no escaping the plastic pollution crisis. Plastic waste is causing a global environmental and health crisis, with a report from Tearfund recently estimating up to one million people could die annually from diseases associated with mismanaged waste. In low and middle-income countries, plastic is blocking waterways, providing vectors for diarrhoeal disease, causing air pollution and entering food chains through our seas and soils.
Retailers and big manufacturers are attempting to respond to consumers’ concerns about single-use plastic waste. But in doing so, they too often promote recycling plastic as the ‘green’ solution to our troubles. It’s a step in the right direction to see international household names making a concerted effort to change for the sake of our planet, yet recycling is not a flawless process. In fact, the majority of plastic still ends up in landfill or incineration.
According to the OECD, globally only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, 19% is incinerated, 50% ends up in landfill, and the final 22% evades waste management systems altogether. This means excessive amounts of toxic landfill and emissions will continue to contaminate our land, oceans and open air for the next 500 years. Meanwhile, alleged ‘chemical recycling’ techniques used to process soft plastics are highly carbon-intensive and produce a low yield of recycled material.
Other brands are beginning to announce their latest move to ‘recyclable, reusable and returnable’ packaging. Some retailers have piloted reusable and returnable packaging schemes and the removal of packaging from fresh fruit and vegetables. While these schemes are part of a wider solution to curb plastic pollution, and should be embraced, they cannot be the only tool in our box. After all, some single-use applications will persist.
Flexible plastic is particularly hard to recycle. It represents almost 25% of all UK plastic packaging, while only 6% is currently recycled, meaning too much of it ends up in the environment. Efforts made by retail giants to call these materials recyclable are misleading for consumers, who would be alarmed to find much of what they put in ‘bring back to store’ schemes ends up burned.
When we do need packaging, there is a ready-made solution. To reduce plastic waste, but keep the simplicity of flexible packaging, retailers must look towards compostable materials. The damage caused to soil by conventional plastics makes compostable packaging a particularly valuable alternative. While plastics in the ocean have garnered a lot of media attention, research suggests its effects are worse on land – with microplastic pollution estimated to be four to 23 times higher in soil than in the sea. These plastics have been seen to create concerning changes in soil ecosystems.
By contrast, compostable products offer a solution that breaks down successfully in the right conditions and sequesters carbon back into the ground, meaning we can give back to mother nature, providing richer soil for the future with minimal impact on the land.
Switching to compostable materials has previously been overlooked by retailers, but it is a popular solution among customers. Recent research suggests almost 50% of European consumers would be willing to purchase a product based on its compostable packaging. Whether in the food or fashion industry, advancing the use of compostable materials is good news for consumers and for the planet, providing a practical alternative to traditional hard-to-recycle plastics.
A recent Changing Markets Foundation report details the failures of European supermarkets and retailers in addressing plastic pollution. It’s clear there is a gap between what retailers are committing to and the impact they’re really having. This is the missing piece of the puzzle, denied by those in the traditional plastics industry with a vested interest in insisting we can carry on with business as usual, recycling our way out of a crisis.
Around the world, we are encouraging brands to look again at a material that shares the properties of traditional plastic but which – processed properly – has none of the polluting effects. With clear public appetite for compostable packaging, it would be a major loss for retailers to not seriously consider this material. If industry leaders take up that call, we stand a real chance of diverting plastics away from our soils and seas.