Alternatives to plastic: are they any better?

Many young adults are currently concerned about the impact which their plastic consumption could be having on the environment. However, new research suggests that we still don’t know enough about the environmental impact of plastic alternatives to be certain that they are actually better for the environment than plastic, as David Kingman explains

Many people in the UK have become increasingly concerned about the impact which their consumption of plastic could be having on the environment in the last few years.

Research published by YouGov last year showed that 46% of Britons feel guilty about how much plastic they use and 82% are actively trying to reduce the amount of plastic they end up throwing away (mainly by avoiding fruit and veg which are wrapped in plastic).

An intergenerational issue?

It makes sense to think about concern over plastic waste as an intergenerational issue: after all, the plastic that we deposit in the world’s oceans or bury in landfill is going to harm the environment for generations to come (a plastic bottle takes 450 years to fully decompose in landfill).

However, while it is a good thing that so many people are now thinking about the consequences that their actions are having on the environment for future generations, some new research has suggested that they shouldn’t simply rush into ditching plastic as rapidly as possible.

Plastic Promises, the new report from the Green Alliance (a politically independent think tank), argues that there is an urgent need for more research into the potential environmental impacts of the various plastic alternatives which food retailers are adopting to try and replace plastic.

Plastic Promises

Pointing out that despite the growing level of public concern about plastic in the UK, the total amount of plastic packaging which is in use has not altered significantly, the report (which was based on interviews with representatives from five of the UK’s major supermarkets and five major consumer goods and beverage companies) highlights some potential risks of switching to plastic alternatives.

Firstly, it points out that the reason why we use plastic packaging on food is because it preserves fruit and veg for longer (a cucumber wrapped in plastic remains edible for 14 days longer than a loose one does), without which food waste could be significantly higher (and food waste is already responsible for around 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year in the UK).

Secondly, the experts who are quoted in the report raise some concerns about the potential environmental impacts of producing packaging which is made out of alternative materials.

For example, glass containers are generally much heavier than plastic ones and so use a lot more energy to transport, while concerns are also raised that reusable shopping bags made out of paper are more resource-intensive to produce than plastic ones.

Any products which are made from plant-based materials, such as potato starch or sugar cane (which Lego is now using to produce its toy bricks), will require massive inputs of land (that could be being used for other things), water and energy in order to grow at scale. Also in the equation are the environmental impacts of shipping these materials around the world and processing them into useful objects.

Thirdly, the retail experts quoted in the report emphasise that although alternatives to plastic may be recyclable or biodegradable in theory, real-world results when trying to recycle them have sometimes been disappointing.

For example, the report demonstrates that some supermarkets are replacing plastic drinks containers with cardboard cartons – which are supposedly recyclable – but in reality the UK lacks the right facilities to recycle the volume of cardboard cartons which is currently being produced, so a lot of it might still be going to landfill.

Concerns were also raised by the retail experts that a lot of packaging materials which say they are “compostable” or “biodegradable” are not being disposed of properly because consumers think they will just biodegrade on their own, when they may only really be biodegradable if they are processed using specially designed equipment.

A rock and a hard place

The interviewees who spoke to the Green Alliance for their research were surprisingly candid about the level of awareness regarding this problem – one of them was quoted saying that “packaging technology innovations can be quite the competitive advantage in the current climate”, while another one was willing to admit that “we are aware that [by switching from plastic to other materials] we may, in some cases, be increasing our carbon footprint.” 

Since the research was published, the Head of Sustainability at Coca-Cola – which was found to be the most polluting brand in a global audit of plastic waste by the charity Break Free from Plastic in 2019 – has echoed the report’s main findings by arguing that switching away from selling drinks in plastic bottles too quickly could end up increasing the firm’s negative environmental impacts.

It’s difficult for consumers to know who they should listen to when it comes to this issue. On the one hand, retailers have an obvious incentive to try and get away with dragging their feet on addressing plastic waste, given that it involves disrupting their existing supply chains.

However, on the other hand, the Green Alliance’s research does give the impression that retailers are genuinely in a difficult position; wary of being accused of ignoring their customers’ concerns about plastic, but at the same time not knowing what they should use instead to genuinely help the environment.

Strategic thinking

The retailers quoted in the report argue that they need more leadership from the government in the form of a waste strategy which would weigh up the total environmental impacts of using different packaging materials over the entire lifecycle of the product. This would need to include the impacts of producing the raw materials, processing them into a usable form and transporting them to the place where they get used.

Something else which needs to be modelled is the behavioural response which using different packaging materials elicits from consumers; for example, whether they start buying less fruit and veg if it’s not wrapped in plastic, and what effect these decisions have on the environmental impacts of food and food waste.

On top of that, there also needs to be more research looking at how different packaging materials behave when they are recycled or left to biodegrade under real-world conditions, as several of the people who were interviewed in the research said that alternative materials that were designed to be more environmentally friendly than plastic had not degraded in the way that was expected outside of the laboratory.

The government published its resources and waste strategy in December 2018, and has conducted initial consultations on three policies: extended producer responsibility for packaging; introducing a deposit-return system for drinks bottles; and bringing in greater consistency for recycling and waste collections. However, full public consultations on these three policies have yet to be undertaken.

Overall, the public’s new-found concern about plastic waste should be viewed as a very positive development, as it demonstrates that the public is willing to significantly adjust its behaviour to help the environment. However, it’s vital that the parties involved don’t waste this opportunity by inadvertently taking actions which could end up actually being more harmful for the environment in the long run.

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