Swapping out plastic packaging for alternatives is confusing consumers and even having detrimental environmental effects, according to a new report on the grocery sector.
Plastic promises: What the grocery sector is really doing about packaging, was published today (9 January) by Green Alliance as part of its work for the Circular Economy Task Force.
It said that, more than two years on from the release of documentary series Blue Planet II, “relatively little has changed”, with supermarkets still putting the equivalent of 900 pieces of single-use plastic on the shelf for every person living in the UK every year.
The report found that consumers struggle to understand terms like ‘bio-based’, ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ when it comes to plastic.
The industry insiders interviewed for the report feared consumers might put compostable plastic in with conventional plastic or litter material, wrongly assuming it will biodegrade in the open environment.
They expressed a desire for a clearer approach to where such plastic alternatives should be used and how they should be marked.
Interviewees also said that by switching from plastic to other materials such as paper bags and compostable or wooden cutlery, businesses might, in some cases, be increasing their carbon footprint, and that they are often making decisions without fully evaluating the environmental impact of the alternatives.
Furthermore, respondents warned that despite shared aims and joint commitments from companies in the grocery sector, individual companies are developing their own policies around plastic to gain competitive advantage, which could end up making environmental problems worse.
Most interviewees indicated that they would like to see more strategic direction, and often direct intervention, from government. Without it, one respondent cautioned, individual companies’ policies around plastic could develop in incompatible ways.
Libby Peake, senior policy adviser on resources at Green Alliance, said: “The public are right to be outraged about plastic pollution. But what we don’t want is, a few years down the line, for them to be outraged about new environmental problems caused by the alternatives. We need to address the root of the problem, our throwaway society.
“Companies need much more help from the government to tackle plastic pollution without making climate change and other environmental impacts worse in the process.”
Two Sides country manager Greg Selfe told Printweek that while the pro-paper group “welcomes the increasing amount of research into improving consumer and businesses understanding of packaging’s impact on the environment”, it is concerned “that the benefits of paper packaging are considered ‘misleading’ by this report”.
“It is a shame that the report overlooks the fact that 85% of paper packaging is recycled in Europe, compared to just 42% of plastic,” he said.
“A healthy market for forest products, such as paper packaging, encourages the long-term growth of forests through sustainable forest management.
“Europe’s growing forest area enables increased carbon sequestration and therefore helping to tackle global warming. The production of single-use plastic packaging creates no such positive externalities nor indirect benefits to the environment.”
Clifton Packaging sales director Zed Sheikh said: “We’ve always said the issue is about reusing your packaging, whether it’s paper or plastic.
“We have to learn how to recycle and we need to focus on that rather than making knee-jerk reactions [about plastic] – the emphasis should always be on putting it back into the system in another form.
“In March we are doing a seminar with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda. We’re going to run through this cycle with them, about environmental impact; they themselves are requesting that we do this so that they can be educated on it.”