The government have announced plans to ban problematic plastics such as single-use cutlery and plates in England as part of public consultation.
Sarah Greenwood, Packaging Technology Expert/Leader, Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, said:
“Although expanded polystyrene containers for foodservice packaging are low in terms of carbon impact, land usage and water usage, there is no viable recycling stream for them, so they inevitably end up in landfill, incineration, or discarded as litter. However, replacing plastic containers with non-plastic alternatives can result in an increase in carbon foot print and other environmental impacts such as land and water usage (Gallego-Scmidt et al 20191, Greenwood et al 20212)
“Whilst we welcome the banning of single use plastic cutlery and plates, at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield, we believe that the use of disposables of ALL materials should be discouraged in favour of reuse. Each time an item is used again for the same purpose, the amount of waste created per use, and the environmental burden of manufacture decreases e.g. if an item is used 20 times, the waste produced per use is just 5% than if it had been used once and thrown away. In our UKRI-funded project Many Happy Returns: Enabling reusable packaging systems, a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, engineers and social scientists aim to make the sustainable reuse of plastic packaging mainstream by identifying the best reuse model for different contexts, exploring optimum materials, processes and technologies for smart reusable plastic packaging systems and developing practices to encourage reuse.
“As part of the project, we are trialling a reusable takeaway container and coffee cup system in some of our university cafes (‘VYTAL’). The containers are free to borrow as long as the customer returns them within two weeks, a bit like borrowing a library book. Once returned the cafes wash them to use again. Findings from the trial, such as the lifetime of the containers, water and energy usage and people’s willingness to engage in the scheme, will be used to help inform the running of other, similar schemes, and potential systems for other products (e.g., household groceries). We also hope to expand the scheme to local businesses outside the university, which will make it more efficient.
“Additionally, our cafes have already introduced a 20 pence charge for single-use coffee cups to encourage customers to bring their own, borrow one, or drink in.
Prof Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Professor of Marine Biology, University of Plymouth, said:
“Plastic litter is now recognised as a global environmental challenge, with impacts on wildlife, economies and human wellbeing. Yet it is also clear that plastics bring many societal benefits and, if used appropriately, have the potential to reduce our environmental footprint. An underlying cause of the issue is that the majority of plastics are for single-use applications like those identified in this consultation. While these items can bring benefits, these are undeniably short compared to the potential persistence of the item as waste in managed systems or as litter. For decades society has learned to engage with plastics as items of convenience. This is especially so for single-use items of packaging, and to some extent we have been trained to see it as acceptable to use these items for an instant and then consider it OK to discard them without a care. That behaviour has to stop. Considering the waste hierarchy absolutely the first place to start is in eliminating avoidable usage as outlined here. Not surprisingly the devil will be in the detail of which particular items to prohibit and in guiding us towards alternatives that are demonstrably better – as things stand, we are lacking robust evidence to inform some of those choices.”
Dr Eulyn Pagaling, an environmental microbiologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, said:
“We welcome the proposed public consultation to ban single-use cutlery, plates and food containers and the introduction of plastic packaging tax. People are aware of the devastating effects that plastics have on the environment and wildlife. But microplastics that result from the break-down of larger plastic items also cause problems that are largely unseen, including acting as vectors for other environmental contaminants such as pathogens, antibiotic resistance and organic pollutants, allowing them to spread more easily. Banning single-use plastics is a step in the right direction to reduce plastic pollution, but it is important for consumers to have alternative sustainable solutions that still function in the same way as plastic would have done.
“While consumer behaviour has changed considerably over the use of plastics, ultimately, the responsibility lies with the manufacturers who make the plastic items in the first place. Future efforts to find alternatives are imperative since current plant-based compostable materials could generate greenhouse gases and are not free of environmental impact. In the future, we encourage extending consultations to reduce other sources of plastic.”
Dr Chamu Kuppuswamy, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Hertfordshire, said:
“It is important to address a wider range of single use plastics, and not just from the consumer end. Avoidable single use plastic equipment that makes up biomedical waste, and other industrial use, should be covered too. Taking tiny steps by addressing a very narrow range of single use plastics, albeit the right direction, won’t help us when time is running out. This is a small step in behaviour change, when what we need is a paradigm shift in plastic consumption.
“Legislation is a great tool to galvanise action and it should be effectively utilised. The plastic packaging tax is a good idea, but comes with the real danger of being invisible to the consumer. This is quite different to the plastic bag charge, which reminded the customer every now and then about the harms of plastic and how they could contribute and mitigate that harm. It is not so much the cost of the plastic bag, but the symbol the charge has become.”
Prof Maria Piacentini, Professor of Consumer Research, Lancaster University, said:
“This is an encouraging move away from the dominant throwaway culture, and getting rid of what are viewed as unnecessary plastics. This will change the role plastics play in all our lives, and will require adjustments from consumers as well as from industry. Improved labelling is a welcome step for consumers, but infrastructural change – such as consistent recycling collections – is also needed to support all consumers as they adjust their practices and habits towards embedding recycling plastics as part of their everyday lives.
“We need to also consider what alternatives may be, and what this means for consumers, producers and retailers. Our preliminary findings show that consumers don’t always find it easy to adjust to new forms of packaging or how to recycle them. For example, one participant reported that she had bought a punnet of grapes with a film lid, labelled “Now 100% Recyclable” on the front of the packaging. Yet, rather than recycle both the plastic punnet and the plastic film lid, she separated the plastic film lid from the plastic punnet and disposed of them separately – the film lid in her general waste bin and the plastic punnet for recycling. While new technological developments and innovations in packaging materials are welcomed, this example shows we have some way to go with supporting and engaging consumers in the shifts that are taking place. Producers and retailers have to consider the material affordances of plastics, and the functionality costs and availability. Our PPiPL research project provisional findings suggest that further collaboration is required between consumers, value chains and government, to come up with alternatives to plastic that work across the supply chain.
“There appears to be consensus that extended producer responsibility is a good thing, but what is emerging from our research is the challenges of recapturing plastics and using them back in the same production process. This has implications attached to the plastic tax and how that will be written. Anecdotally, we were given an example of a particular type of plastic packaging and how it can be recaptured and recycled into another product but not into the original form (film). If the tax is set up for producers having to used 30% recycled content then they could be taxed, despite finding an alternative use for the recaptured material e.g. not in the original form.”
Dr Alison Stowell, Senior Lecturer in Organisation, Work and Technology, Lancaster University, said:
“There are a lot of complexities surrounding the use of plastics and the question of responsibility around plastic packaging is a pressing one. Bringing the consumer into the conversation is important, especially to improve understanding of labelling and language around recycling to support the change that is needed. Creating improved technologies to handle plastics is also crucial.
“Alternative products are not always better for the environment than single use plastics, from our preliminary findings we are seeing that there are some excellent alternatives out there, but what appears missing is the support and infrastructure to manage the full life cycle of sustainable alternatives. There are path dependencies in terms of technology to produce packaging, existing waste infrastructures that need to be adapted, and using food packaging as an exemplar there are complex value chains involved with many moving parts.”
Prof Iseult Lynch, Professor of Environmental Nanosciences, University of Birmingham, said:
“While this is a positive step, we need to think about the wider environmental aspects also. This includes ensuring that the alternative “eco-friendly” options are not, in fact, worse than the plastics in terms of other environmental concerns such as greenhouse gases, water footprint, and global transport costs.
“Simply banning products may not, therefore, be the best solution in the long term – or while it addresses one immediate problem we need to ensure that it is not generating other environmental problems elsewhere, for example driving deforestation or extending monoculture of bamboo which is harmful to soil health.
“It is worth noting the 2018 study from DTU for the Danish government on the environmental footprint of cotton tote bags as replacements for single use carrier bags. Each cotton bag would need to be re-used for 54 years to have less environmental impact, in terms of water, than a single use plastic bag (although this didn’t factor in the microplastics issue), and disposal of these bags is also problematic.
“It is critical that the consultation and evidence collection considers the issues from a holistic ‘whole environment’ perspective with due consideration of the impacts of increased demand for potential alternative products, of which the long-term environmental impacts are unclear.
“Avoiding greenwashing and ensuring that consumers have all the information needed to guide their choices on alternatives to single use plastics is essential.”
Prof Mark Miodownik MBE FREng, UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said:
“The government needs to be careful that manufacturers don’t switch from single use plastics to single use biodegradable plastics, our analysis shows this rarely helps the environment. Biodegradable plastics take energy and resources to manufacture and will only biodegrade successful under very specific conditions. If they end up in the sea, or in forests, or in landfill, or down the drain, or being burnt, they harm the environment, yet these are the most likely outcomes.”
Dr Alice Horton, Principal Investigator of Anthropogenic Contaminants from the National Oceanography Centre, said:
“Single use plastics are a widespread environmental contaminant. These items are often used for only minutes before disposal, and are mostly non-recyclable, leading to disposal to landfill or loss to the environment. Where reusable or recyclable alternatives are available, phasing out these single use plastic items will be beneficial in preventing the release of some sources of plastics to the environment.
“Nonetheless, plastics are not the only environmental contamination issue and alternative materials, even those that are naturally derived, must be clearly labelled to prevent mismanagement or littering under the often-false assumption that they will biodegrade within the environment.
“A call for evidence on wider sources of plastic pollution is welcome, due to the huge diversity of plastic products used and discarded.”
Professor Steve Fletcher, Director of Revolution Plastics, University of Portsmouth, says:
“Banning an increasing range of single use plastic products is undoubtedly a positive step to reducing plastic waste in the environment. However, substantial and permanent reductions in mismanaged plastic waste will only come from systemic change to the plastics economy. This means taking action across the entire plastics life-cycle, including how we produce and use plastics, not just how we dispose of them. In reality this is a small step, not the giant leap required to bring meaningful change.”
“At the heart of a transition to a sustainable plastics economy is evidence based policy-making. This is the central purpose of the Global Plastics Policy Centre launched by the University of Portsmouth a COP26. This Centre will provide evidence-based policy advice to governments and businesses to ensure effective policies are developed to tackle the global plastics crisis.”
Prof Stefan Krause, Professor of Hydrology and Biogeochemistry, University of Birmingham, said:
“While the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted our dependence on safe single-use plastic for PPE and hygiene measures in the medical and private sectors, it also led to an unnecessary increase in the use of single-use plastics for food packaging and handling. This saw early successes in reducing single use plastics in particular on the food packaging sector being diminished.
“Reducing and, where possible, banning single use plastics in areas where viable alternatives exist or can easily be introduced is therefore overdue. It is crucial though to ensure that these measures are aligned well with technological and behavioural solutions so that unintended consequences from shifting to alternative materials can be avoided in the future.”