Consumers are more frequently demanding environmentally friendly, sustainable packaging that can be recycled. And although most small businesses will not be affected by the looming plastic tax due in the UK in April 2022 it is in everyone’s interests to offer sustainable packaging solutions.

Not only that, on pack communication and information is ever more important to help customers navigate and understand what they must do with the empty packaging to dispose of it through the right waste chain.

Plastic statistics

  • Current plastic production is 367 million tonnes per annum.
  • By 2050 the estimated figure will 990m tonnes – that is an increase of 49,500% in 100 years!
  • Petroleum based plastics are not degradable, they only break down into microscopic pieces (e.g., plastic bottles could take up to 450 years to degrade). They then enter the food chain, air, soil and water we drink, releasing harmful chemicals.
  • The packaging industry contributes to 3 times more plastic waste than any other sector.
  • South east Asia is the top offender in mismanaging plastic waste. They mismanage 60% compared to Europe & Central Asia area only at 3.6%.

Plastic crisis in South East Asia

  • Southeast Asia has seen some of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, and plastic production has boomed alongside it while waste management lags. In a region known for takeaway street food culture and single-use plastic, Southeast Asia’s limited waste management services and infrastructure contribute to mismanagement of more than 75% of plastic waste, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.
  • Unfortunately, some waste from the EU makes its way to South East Asia, only to then be mismanaged.
  • A 2015 study by environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy found that 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year — with more than half coming from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and China.
  • 25% of fish in Indonesian markets are already contaminated by plastic, i.e., they have micro particles within them which are then consumed by humans.

True or false?

  • Plastic straws significantly contribute to the plastic issue.
    FALSE – If all the straws globally were lost to the ocean this would only account for 0.03% of ocean plastic.
  • Plastics can be recycled many times over.
    FALSE – Most petroleum-based plastics can only be recycled once/maybe twice simply delaying landfill or incineration.
  • Most of the packaging we recycle through kerbside facilities gets recycled.
    FALSE – Careless/uneducated home recycling plays a part in contamination of non-recyclable plastics which in turn cause many items to end up in landfill. Many of the items you think are being recycled are going to landfill!
  • Paper is better than plastic.
    TRUE – but it has a much larger carbon footprint and quality of recycled paper degrades with each use.
    There are many serious environmental problems associated with the use of plastic but there are many serious environmental problems associated with alternatives to plastic (such as the carbon footprint).

Plastic technologies

  • Degradable plastics – All plastic is degradable, even traditional plastic, but just because it can be broken down into tiny fragments or powder does not mean the materials will ever return to nature.
  • Biodegradable plastics – made from traditional petrochemicals, which are engineered to break down more quickly. As the name suggests, these biodegradable plastics contain additives that cause them to decay more rapidly in the presence of light and oxygen (moisture and heat help too). Unlike bioplastics, biodegradable plastics are made of normal (petrochemical) plastics and don’t always break down into harmless substances: sometimes they leave behind a toxic residue and that makes them generally (but not always) unsuitable for composting.
  • Eco/recycled plastics – which are simply plastics made from recycled plastic materials rather than raw petrochemicals. These plastics could be conventional or bio. Micro-organisms break it down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at the same rate as other organic materials in the compost pile, leaving no toxic residue. By definition, a compostable certified product means the material should disappear completely within seven weeks in an industrial composting unit running at up to 65 degrees Celsius. But if you add this compostable plastic to your own compost, the natural biodegrading process can take two years.
  • Compostable plastics – Compostable plastic will biodegrade in a compost site.
  • Bioplastics – Consisting of natural materials such as sugar cane or starch, bioplastics can be broken down completely into water, carbon dioxide and compost by micro-organisms under the right conditions. “Biodegradable” implies that the decomposition happens in weeks to months. Bioplastics that don’t biodegrade that quickly are called “durable,” and some bioplastics made from biomass that cannot easily be broken down by micro-organisms are considered non-biodegradable.

Are bioplastics/biodegradables good or bad?

Bioplastics and biodegradable plastics have long been controversial. Manufacturers like to portray them as a magic-bullet solution to the problem of plastics that won’t go away. Bioplastics, for example, are touted as saving 30-80% of the greenhouse gas emissions you’d get from normal plastics and they can give food longer shelf-life in stores. But here are some of the drawbacks:

  • Some biodegradable plastics contribute to greenhouse gases.
  • Biodegradable plastics and bioplastics don’t always readily decompose and may leave behind micro-fragments or toxic residues.
  • Bioplastics are made from plants such as corn and maize, using land which would normally be used to grow plants for food. These come with the usual environmental impacts of intensive agriculture and in some cases these indirect impacts from growing “bioplastics” are greater than if we simply made plastics from petroleum in the first place.
  • Bioplastics and biodegradable plastics cannot be easily recycled. To most people, Polylactide acid (PLA) looks very similar to PET but, if the two are mixed up in a recycling bin, the whole collection becomes impossible to recycle.
  • Many people think terms like “bioplastic,” “biodegradable,” and “compostable” mean exactly the same thing. But there’s a huge difference between a “biodegradable” plastic (one that might take decades or centuries to break down) and a truly “compostable” material (something that turns almost entirely into benign waste after a matter of months in a composter), while “bioplastic,” as you have seen, can also have different biodegradable qualities. Confusing jargon hampers public understanding, which makes it harder for consumers to grasp the issues and make positive choices when they shop.

So is recycling a solution at all?

Out of the three options; recycling, landfill or incineration, recycling has lowest global warming potential and energy use across nearly all of the studies, however as plastics can only be recycled once or twice, it only delays disposal in landfill or incineration.

And how can you help as brand owners?

  • Strive to sell your product in sustainable packaging that is easy to dispose of.
  • Be clear and transparent about the disposal chain, whether that be via an accredited logo such as ‘recycle now’ or clear on pack guidance.
  • Offer ways to the consumer to repurpose your used packaging for other uses via on pack communication.