Food giants Unilever, Nestle and PepsiCo will get tougher on single-use plastics

plastics, plastic, landfill
Shutterstock Mohamed Abdulraheem
Waste plastic bottles and other types of plastic waste at the waste disposal site in Thilafushi, part of the Maldives.

The government may have promised to wipe out avoidable plastic waste in the U.K. by 2042, but last week large swathes of the U.K.'s food and drink sector went a leap further, in a bid to convince the British public they are serious about tackling the plastic waste crisis afflicting the world's oceans.

The U.K.'s biggest supermarkets, food manufacturers and processors — from Lidl and Aldi to Nestle, Unilever and PepsiCo — unveiled an industry-wide promise to overhaul their practices, in an unprecedented step which underscores the impact public concern over plastic waste is having on businesses practices across the country.

The U.K. Plastics Pact, orchestrated by waste advisory body WRAP, sees firms promise to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic by 2025 and ensure all remaining plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by the same date. Signatories also promise to ensure at least 70 percent of plastic packaging is effectively recycled or composted, and that plastic packaging includes an average of 30 percent recycled content.  

Environment Secretary Michael Gove is backing the pact. "Our ambition to eliminate avoidable plastic waste will only be realized if government, businesses and the public work together," he said in a statement. "Industry action can prevent excess plastic reaching our supermarket shelves in the first place. I am delighted to see so many businesses sign up to this pact and I hope others will soon follow suit."

In the U.K., just a third of consumer plastic packaging is recycled, with the rest sent to landfill or left to pollute landscapes, rivers and seas. The impact plastic waste is having on marine wildlife was brought home to viewers in last year's BBC "Blue Planet II," the most-watched TV series of the year in the U.K.

Since then, the government has made tackling plastic pollution a key environmental priority. Two weeks ago saw a promise to ban the sale of plastic straws and drinks stirrers, while the government has also banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics and is preparing a nationwide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles.

But campaigners have called for faster, bolder action to stem the tide — and businesses across the country have responded with promises to phase out everything from plastic straws to coffee cups.

The launch of the pact last week follows an avalanche of pledges from individual brands and retailers promising to radically cut down on their use of single-use plastic packaging. 

But adding weight to the battalion of household names signed up to the Plastic Pact is the cohort of plastic reprocessors and packaging suppliers also committed to the initiative, which will be crucial to help big-name firms live up to their promises.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said while the U.K. retail industry is already leading the way in phasing out the sale of high profile products such as plastic-stemmed cotton swabs, the strength of the pact is in bringing the industry together to work on the common technical challenges of phasing out single-use plastics.

"We want to see a holistic approach to the environment and resources rather than shifting from single issue to single issue, so we welcome this comprehensive approach and the opportunity to work with other link-minded groups to tackle this problem together," he said.

And with the help of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the pact will be replicated in other countries around the world to drive a "global movement for change," organizers claim.

But some already express nervousness that initiatives such as the U.K. Plastics Pact leave too much leeway for government to take its hand off the plastic-tackling steering wheel.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Julian Kirby said while makers and marketers of packaged goods must do more, it is no substitute for concerted government policy action. "The Plastic Pact is certainly a move in the right direction; however, government measures are also needed to ensure everyone plays their part, and these targets are actually met," he stressed.

"To discourage industry from using virgin plastic, and to boost their recycling and re-use of the material, regulations and taxes should be introduced. But ultimately the only long-term solution is a complete phase-out of plastic for all but the most essential uses. Ministers must draw up an action plan, covering all plastic-polluting sectors, including clothing, cosmetics and vehicles, to make this a reality."

An action plan of sorts is due from the government later this year, as ministers continue to work on a new U.K. waste strategy and await the results of a series of consultations on plastic taxes, deposit return schemes and other measures. Ministers hope the measures under consideration, coupled with industry-led efforts, will help haul the U.K.'s recycling rate out of the doldrums and modernize the U.K.'s waste infrastructure. But many campaigners hope that rather than focusing mainly on downstream waste management, the government also will provide some radical proposals for cutting waste at source, such as offering far greater incentives for firms to embrace a circular resource strategy. 

Waste management professionals also hope the new strategy will provide more clarity on how the cost of waste infrastructure is distributed, with suppliers and manufacturers further up the chain assuming more financial burden.

Meanwhile, other activists continue to lobby for a ban on plastic altogether, calling for it to be replaced with alternatives such as cardboard, steel or glass.

"With a growing public and political consensus against the scourge of plastic packaging, it's clear that Britain's food and drink manufacturers must embrace those materials that nature can deal with rather than those it can't. We have to turn off the plastic tap," insisted Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the campaign group Plastic Planet, which helped pioneer the first plastic-free supermarket aisle in the Netherlands earlier this year.

But the jury is still out over whether plastic-free packaging is better for the environment. For instance, firms must balance the added weight — and hence carbon emissions — associated with transporting goods packed in heavy packaging materials such as glass or metal, with the environmental damage plastic can wreak. Meanwhile, many retailers argue plastic wrapping helps keep food fresher for longer, cutting down on food waste. At the same time, any increase in demand for paper or cardboard-based packaging brings with it implications for land use and associated carbon emissions.

Last week's move from some of the U.K.'s largest businesses is clear evidence of how far the public discourse around plastic packaging has traveled in the last six months. It is now an item at or near the top of many corporate agendas.

But it is clear the while business is prepared to join the war on plastic waste, both the private and public sector are a long way from finalizing a winning strategy. Government will need to step up its work on delivering a national waste management system that does more to incentivize better waste management and discourage wasteful resource use. After all, the "Blue Planet" effect will not last forever, and with tons of plastics flooding into the seas every minute, the hard work on this issue barely has begun.

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