Get talking: Why plastic-free aisles will not help the environment

Materials World magazine
1 Sep 2017

Barry Turner responds to recent calls for supermarkets to implement a plastic-free aisle initiative. 

On 2 August, an event occurred that went largely unreported in the media – Earth Overshoot Day. This marks the day when we have consumed all the resources our planet can sustain for that year. In the 1960s, we were comfortably living within our means, but this is no longer true – we are now consuming at the rate of 1.7 planets. Countries are doing this to differing degrees, with the USA unsurprisingly a pack leader (second only to Australia) and consuming at a rate that equates to 5.0 planets, compared with India at 0.6. The UK, at 3.0, has a lot to do, along with many other developed nations in Europe. As populous countries like China and India continue to develop the situation is only going to get worse.

Clearly something must change — and that ‘something’ is getting serious about where the real threats to our planet lie and what we need to do to counter them. One of those imperatives is to focus on how we use our resources and make sure we use them as efficiently as possible.

You may be wondering what this has to do with plastic-free aisles. Well, a lot. Recently we have seen a spate of well-intentioned initiatives introduced to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans. Although the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s prediction that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans was exaggerated to capture attention and focus on the impact of the leakage from several developing nations in the Pacific Rim and Africa, which account for 98% of the plastic entering our oceans, the result has been much misplaced concern.

What we need at times like this are strategic actions that will stop the leakage into the oceans of a resource that can and should be put to work again and not carelessly discarded. These actions need to be relevant to the country concerned. For example, in the Philippines – one of the 12 most polluting countries – it will mean implementing the sort of waste management infrastructure we take for granted. 

In the UK, while we are not one of the major polluters, we can always do better and this should include:

  • further improvements in waste infrastructure to encourage and make recycling easy for all plastics, both at home and on the go
  • strong anti-littering measures, which should include the right bins in the right place and for those to be emptied promptly when required
  • strong and appropriate enforcement of littering fines and the development of a culture where littering is not tolerated

If those advocating plastic-free aisles in the UK were successful, the inevitable result would be the resources we use would increase dramatically and the vital role plastic packaging plays in protecting goods and extending shelf life would be sacrificed. What plastic packaging has done has enabled produce – which consumes far more resources during production than the packaging that contains it – to arrive in our homes undamaged and fit to use or consume. In some cases, it also allows us to keep products fresh at home for extended periods. 

Selling products loose and unpackaged has been proven to result in significantly more waste in stores. Plastic consumes far less resources than alternatives and numerous studies have demonstrated this. For example, Bernd Bradt and Harold Pilz showed that adopting alternatives to plastic would consume two-to-three times more resources, and Trucost showed that the damage to human health and ecosystems would be five times greater. 

Let’s start applauding a material that has and will continue to minimise resource use whether used in packaging or in lightweight, durable, long-life products. Plastics in construction and transport applications also provide considerable resource savings over many years due to their light weight and insulating properties. We should start focusing on the intensive consumers of resources and implement measures to reduce their impact. At the same time, we should focus on the irresponsible disposal of plastics by a few nations and individuals, and enable them to responsibly manage their waste.

Barry Turner is Plastic and Flexible Packaging Group Director for the British Plastics Federation.