Environmental think-tank the Green Alliance has warned that companies are on the verge of switching from plastic to materials with a “greater environmental impact”, because of public pressure.
The warning comes in the wake of a report – Plastic Promises – which was released this morning (9 January). It is based on interviews with UK supermarkets and brands and forms part of Green Alliance’s work programme for the Circular Economy Taskforce.
Questioning the practicalities for retailers of moving away from single-use packaging, the report suggests that some plastic alternatives could turn out to be harmful in the long run, when looking at factors such as carbon emissions.
One of the examples highlighted was plastic bags. The report explained that UK supermarkets, including Morrisons, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have recently switched from single use plastic bags for loose produce and bakery items, for example, replacing them with single use paper bags.
“This is a worrying trend, as paper bags, which are often just as unnecessary as their plastic counterparts, can have much higher carbon impacts, though this can depend on material sources and product specification,” the report noted.
Summing up the findings of the report, Green Alliance said that “in the absence of government direction, a disjointed and potentially counterproductive approach to solving plastic pollution is emerging”.
A“particular concern” raised by the Green Alliance in the report is compostable or ‘biodegradable’ plastic. While the research suggests that over 80% of consumers think this is an environmentally friendly product, said the think-tank, there is “little understanding” of what the terms mean and how the material should be dealt with once used.
The report explained that the retailers consulted “wanted a clearer approach to where it should be used and how it should be marked to avoid causing more problems”.
The Green Alliance said that all of the interviewees who took part in the report felt 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.
One respondent called the process “fairly quick and fairly cut and dry”, prompted by a mandate to office managers to “be more environmentally friendly” which results in “a kneejerk reaction to exit plastic,” the study claimed.
“Avoiding unintended consequences should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.”
The research was conducted for the Circular Economy Task Force, a business group convened by the Green Alliance which includes major waste companies such as Suez, Veolia and Viridor.
Commenting on the report from a Suez perspective, Adam Read, external affairs director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, said short term decisions could cause problems in creating a “true circular economy”.
Mr Read added: “As the war on plastics continues to rage, avoiding unintended consequences should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and that includes government, industry and, of course, consumers. Change must be managed and planned if we’re to move towards fully closed-loop systems for recycling and, more importantly, reuse.”
Richard Kirkman, Veolia UK’s chief technology and innovation officer, said: “This report is a reality check – it shows what’s happening with plastics on the ground and why we need to keep a level head.
“Let’s follow the science and ensure producers and consumers make sound material choices in line with the progressive resources and waste strategy.”
Dan Cooke, head of sustainability at Viridor, said: “The often kneejerk reactions of some buyers and brands can cause frustration for recycling companies as they move away from inherently recyclable packaging types into materials like coated cardboard and composites that are less recyclable and that can have a worse environmental impact.
“We work closely with supermarkets and brand owners on recyclability and to align recycling services with their requirements.”
The full report can be read here.