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The Problem with Plastics

Plastics are a huge topic, about which entire books are published! We have wanted to write a blog about it for some time but frankly, we did not know where to start with such a huge subject and we didn’t want to write a book!

So, we narrowed down our focus and decided we wanted a better understanding of what is behind the problem with single-use plastic.

I mean, yes, without doubt, we need to use less single-use plastic and get better at managing plastic waste but, why is it so prolific in the first place? We also wanted to know what the industry and policymakers were doing to help us reduce our reliance on single-use plastic and its impact on our environment.

We thought a good place to start was by getting a brief overview of the size of the problem.

  • National Geographic Magazine state that Modern day plastics are just over 100 years old with half of all plastics ever manufactured being produced in the last 15 years.

  • They also tell us that the production of plastic increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015. Production is expected to double by 2050.

  • National Geographic also tells us that every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. That is the equivalent of tipping five garbage bags full of trash on every foot of coastline around the world.

  • As of 2015, more than 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste had been generated. Around 9 percent of that was recycled, 12 percent was incinerated, and 79 percent accumulated in landfills or in the environment.

  • Analysis of official government trade data by Unearthed shows that the UK sent 64,786 tonnes of plastic waste to non-OECD countries in the first seven months of 2020, the equivalent of more than 300 tonnes a day.

  • Plastic and its chemical additives can take up to around 400 years to decompose creating microplastics and pollution as it does so.

More and more of us are trying to do what we can to reduce our plastic consumption and live more sustainable lifestyles, but what do we know about the industry? Are the industry and our policymakers doing enough to support our grassroots efforts for change?

We took a look at the website Association of Plastic Manufacturers who tell us that …”plastic is an organic material, just like wood, paper or wool as it is derived from natural products such as coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil”. They even go so far as to tell us that “Plastics make it possible to balance today’s needs with environmental concerns”

So, the industry considers itself to be like any other manufacturing industry in so far that it uses ‘natural raw materials' to make its products. While that may well be the case, not all raw materials are created equal and not all are as harmful to the environment. But what else do we know about the industry?

According to the British Plastics Federation (BPF) the UK plastics industry is:

  • The 3rd largest employer in the UK manufacturing sector, employing around 500,000 people both directly and indirectly.

  • In 2015, plastic was one of the UK’s top 10 exports (this included a significant proportion of export to Europe, and we do not have updated figures post-Brexit).

  • The UK produces around 1.8 million tonnes of plastic per year.

  • According to white paper produced by the Imperial College London Plastic packaging accounted for 44% of plastic used in 2017 in the UK and 67% of the plastic waste produced (2.26M tonnes).

  • The turnover for the UK plastics industry is a staggering £27 billion.

  • A study carried out by a consortium including the London School of Economics -has recently concluded that there just 20 firms behind more than half of all single-use plastic waste.

So, it's fair to say that the industry is of significance to the UK economy, but we wondered how the industry viewed itself in regard to its environmental impact. We personally found their view fascinating.

The British Plastics Federation (BPF) published an article on its website entitled “Sustainability of Plastics” in which they tell us that the “environmental cost to replacing plastic with alternative materials would be nearly 4 times greater (than plastic)” The article then goes on to tell us about the benefits plastic has for the environment. It certainly gives a different perspective to the narrative we see routinely in the media and in our opinion, it is well worth a look.

We also had a look at Plastics Europe who tell us on their website that plastic waste is the issue. They say that “to improve the circularity of plastics, it is essential to make sure that more and more plastic waste is recovered and doesn’t end up in landfill or in the environment.”

They tell us that to play a part in cleaning up the industry's footprint in our oceans, they are a “committed signatory of the Declaration for Solutions on Marine Litter and Operation Clean Sweep, which aims to reduce the effects of ocean pollution.”

Combatting Marine Litter is another key focus for Plastics Europe. They tell us that “They deplore plastic waste found in the environment, whether caused by irresponsible behaviour or poor waste management.” and that “…as an industry, we are determined to drive multi-stakeholder action on the issue both in Europe and at the international level.”

So, overall, it seems the issue is generally seen as a matter of waste management rather than unnecessary production. But if that is the case, why then, we wonder, does the UK ship so much plastic waste to typically poorer developing nations rather than create innovative ways of dealing with our own plastic waste at home?

According to an article by Circular Online, Plastic waste can only be exported from the UK if it is going to another country to be recycled. However, Greenpeace says that many of the countries that British waste is being exported to do not have ‘adequate recycling facilities’, and British plastic waste has been found dumped or burnt in ‘illegal rubbish dumps’ all over the world.

While the issue of plastic pollution abroad may seem distant and removed from our everyday lives, the problem is very much one we need to take urgent ownership of at home.

An article by Statista states that China and Indonesia are the worst nations to pollute our seas with plastic waste. We suspect it is little coincidence that Indonesia is one of the countries that the UK currently exports its plastic waste too and until recently, so was China.

On May 21st 2021 the BPF issued a statement about exported plastic waste. In it, they say they have been “calling for years to the UK to reduce its reliance on exporting plastic waste for recycling”.

So why then, if the industry is concerned with plastic waste and has been calling on policymakers to take a different approach to plastic waste, does little seem to have changed?

On January 21st 2021, a new EU Directive came into force that meant shipments of unsorted plastic waste from the EU to non-OECD countries was banned.

But of course, Britain is no longer part of the EU and “UK exports will now be made under a new system of “prior informed consent”, under which the importer has to agree to accept the waste and has the opportunity to refuse it”.

With the UK being a significant manufacturer of plastics, this creates a potential loophole that is not good news.

HMRC is also proposing to introduce a Plastic packaging tax in 2022 which will apply to all plastic packaging produced in, or imported into the UK that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic (by weight). They propose to have exclusions for smaller businesses.

The Imperial College London has written a paper entitled ‘Shaping the Circular economy: Taxing the use of virgin resources’ in which they tell us that The average impact on UK households of the proposed ‘plastic tax would be £8.44 per year or 16p per week

They also tell us that currently, it is cheaper for companies to buy virgin plastic rather than plastic that has been recycled.

They say that “ultimately, the problem of plastic is not so much one of waste, but production”

So, despite the industry and our Government framing the issues of plastic around poor waste management, academics who study the problems suggest the problem is actually one of production.

As mentioned earlier, according to a white paper produced by the Imperial College London Plastic packaging accounted for 44% of plastic used in 2017 in the UK and 67% of the plastic waste produced (2.26M tonnes).

Further, it is estimated that in 2019 the UK generated 44kg of single-use plastic per person!

We think these are significant numbers.

So far, we have understood that plastic waste generated in the UK from single-use plastics are an issue that directly affects poorer nations and pollutes our oceans, but now we can see that our consumer-driven demand for single-use plastic in the UK is a driving force behind the ocean pollution in the first place!

So, while images of our oceans filled with plastic, in places like Thailand and India may seem like exotic, far-flung destinations, and removed from our everyday activities in the UK, it is imperative we take ownership of our contribution to the problem.

The Plastics industry in the UK is significant and our consumerist activities are ultimately tied to their productivity and profit generation. In our mind, unless we avoid single-use plastics and demonstrate our desire for a meaningful shift away from these products, the industry simply is not motivated to change its production methods or output, at least not in a meaningful sense.

The industry is at least committed to ocean clean-up initiatives, but we wonder how meaningful this is when the UK government ships vast quantities of our UK-generated plastic waste to countries ill-equipped to deal with it in the first place.

The UK Government, which will already undoubtedly make significant tax receipts from the plastics industry, is set to increase this income with the proposed introduction of a new plastics tax. While there is still profit to be made from virgin plastic production, we simply see no motivation for them to create policies that force meaningful industry change.

Earlier, we mentioned the report “Sustainability of Plastics” by the BPF. While the article does raise some interesting points about plastics more generally (perhaps worthy of another blog post one day) but for us atleast, it missed the point. While arguments for and against plastic will always be made, the issue about single use plastic persist unanswered.

Most of our single use packaging is a consumer choice. We choose the plastic coffee cup, the plastic bag, or the disposable plates. We consume fruit and vegetables that come on polystyrene trays or inside plastic bags or worse, that come pre-prepared in plastic cartons to simplify mealtimes. We accept that alternatives are not always available (yet), but we have seen before that significant consumer pressure can change things.

There are a number of alternatives already available and there are other innovations in development that could also be used to replace plastics but at the moment, these processes are expensive and challenging.

To our mind, the problems with plastics are 4-fold.

· The plastics industry is big business with big profits. If we can convince the industry, through a change in consumer behaviour, that we want less single-use plastics, it might encourage them to invest in alternative technologies to produce more sustainable packaging using more eco-conscious raw materials.

· The plastics industry, UK Government and policymakers must make it easier for both consumers and industries to recycle our waste. At the moment, it can be confusing and difficult to know which plastic is recyclable and not all parts of the UK have access to the same recycling schemes. Not all industries & businesses use recycling schemes to dispose of their waste either and we feel this needs to change.

· We must convince the UK Government and policymakers that out-of-sight is not out of mind and that they must find ways of recycling waste plastics here, at home. If they can see the problem, then they must find new ways of dealing with it.

· The UK Government needs to support businesses in creating new, sustainable, and cost-effective alternatives to replace single-use plastics and improved recycling technology.

As we said at the beginning, plastics are a huge topic, and we could not possibly cover it in a blog post, but we wanted to highlight the interconnectedness of plastic, particularly single use plastic. As consumers, we are a vital element in pushing for change through our collective buying power, but others need to play their part too.

For what it is worth, the plastic industry appears to be playing a part to help address issues around waste management, but they are unlikely to reduce their production of vast quantities of single-use plastics unless our consumer and convenience driven society demands it of them. Policymakers at both home and around the globe need to do more to force meaningful change, to stop the shipping of plastic waste to countries ill equipped to deal with it and to support industries to evolve into more sustainable production methods.

Fundamentally though, as consumers, we believe that we need a sea change in consumer activity and a real shift away from buying single-use plastics with sustainable products becoming the norm. We need to collectively drive home the message that we need alternatives to single-use plastic products and better ways to reuse plastics that already exist on our planet.

As always, we provide links within the blog for your reference. We are not affiliated in any way with these websites and are not responsible for their safety or content. The blog is not intended as a comprehensive document, rather as a concise overview of a broad-reaching subject matter. It is for the reader to carry out further reading as required.

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