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Problem Packaging? – Common packaging types, their issues and what is being done

7th February 2018

Martin Hyde

Plastic has been in the news a lot recently, and it hasn’t been the best press. With the potential for the EU Circular Economy package on the horizon, the launch of the 25-year environmental plan, restrictions on waste shipping to China and a huge surge in coverage of the issues plastic can cause when not disposed of properly (such as the BBC’s Blue Planet), The Government, Industry and consumers have all seemingly become a lot more concerned in the material’s usage.

The primary concern revolves around packaging, something which performs tremendous functions in modern society but often gets bad press due to excessive usage and poor recyclability.

Today we are going to discuss some of the most politicised packaging types, these are mentioned in the news often and are considered “problem materials”, however, all of them are recyclable.

Black Plastic

What is it?

Black plastic packaging (predominantly used in meat / microwaveable trays) was mainly put in to usage due to its cheap price and ability to make products look more desirable.

What is the problem?

Whilst black plastic itself can be readily recycled, the major issue it faces is its inability to be sorted from normal household waste streams. The black coloured pigment cannot be readily sorted from the recycling stream using optical sorting methods as it cannot be detected. This means that black plastic often ends up either not being recycled at all and becoming residual waste, or being recycled into low value products which do not require sorting of the input material.

What is being done?

WRAP (The Waste Resources Action Programme) are in the process of working with major retailers to introduce detectible pigments at the point of manufacture of the source plastic. This has showed some positive results in allowing the material to be sorted.

Iceland have pledged to move away from Black CPET trays in their packaging and other supermarkets such as Waitrose have started to make changes to their store-based packaging, moving away from black plastic usage in the Fruit & Vegetable and Meat & Poultry lines by the end of 2018. Click here to read about our Member Waitrose and their great efforts to reduce plastic use.

Straws 

What is it?

Plastic drinking straws have been incredibly popular for beverage consumption (around 500 Million are used daily in the USA alone) since their introduction. Various types and material of straws (almost entirely plastic of some sort) are available.

What is the problem?

Due to their prevalent usage in the catering industry, plastic straws have become a key player in the “throwaway culture” associated with single use plastics. As a result, they suffer from a relatively low recycling level as they are often not sorted from residual waste by the consumer. Straws are mostly made of Polypropylene which is recyclable, but have a high littering rate and often find their way into the natural environment. Straws in the natural environment present hazards to wildlife and in the ocean, can cause choking. As with other plastics, there is some evidence that when the material breaks down, it can act as a catalyst for bioaccumulation of hazardous substances.

What is being done?

Following the highlights of marine plastic litter in recent media, and due to the growing viewpoint that single use plastic straws are incredibly wasteful, some major brands have taken steps to approach the problem. JD Wetherspoon announced in February 2017 that they are removing plastic straws from their pubs. Waitrose also recently announced removing plastic straws from their shelves. Some businesses have begun to lobby the government to introduce a tax similar to the 5p bag tax on plastic straws. If implemented correctly this could significantly reduce usage. There are also a range of companies producing non-plastic or biodegradable straws made of alternative materials.

Plastic Bags 

What is it?

Plastic carrier bags are a great tool which allow goods to be easily carried around in varying weather conditions, providing protection and enabling convenience for consumers.

What is the problem?

For a long time, plastic bags have been used as a throwaway, single use, convenience item in the UK. Bags are often a highly littered product and can have devastating effects if they end up in the natural environment due to their long lifetime and the hazard they pose to marine life both as a physical obstacle and as a bioaccumulation catalyst when they break down.

What is being done?

On the 5th of October 2015, England introduced (somewhat behind the times) a 5p tax on single use carrier bags in major retailers (employing more than 250 staff). This lead to an immediate drop-off in the purchase and usage of single use bags. The money collected by the retailers must be given to charitable causes (although they are allowed to subtract their own “reasonable” expenses first). There is an expectation that the charge will be rolled out to all stores, which could further increase the reduction in usage of single use bags.

Plastic Bottles 

What is it?

Plastic bottles have become the standardised beverage distribution method for many beverages, both soft and alcoholic. Plastic bottles are significantly cheaper and less heavy than the previous glass alternatives and allow products to be shipped for a lower cost. This often leads to products on sale which would otherwise not be economically viable for the market at an affordable price. There is also some evidence that the carbon footprint of plastic bottles is reduced due to the low weight and relatively simple manufacturing process.

What is the problem?

Plastic bottles are a highly littered product which often don’t make it into the normal recycling stream due to their prevalent usage as a single use packaging product.

What is being done?

The strategy with plastic bottles has been split several ways,

Boost recycling – many brands have run campaigns to boost recycling of their packaging, with Coca Cola investing a significant amount into boosting education on the recyclability of its products. There has also been significant interest in the potential introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles, to encourage segregation for recycling and minimise littering.

Minimise usage – there have been various campaigns to promote the use of refillable, long-life water bottles rather than disposable, single use ones. Recently, major brands have begun to join an initiative run by The Refill campaign to provide free drinking water refill points across the country; the first major brand to sign up to the initiative was Whitbread PLC who own Costa Coffee and Premier Inn.

Coffee Cups 

What is it?

Takeaway coffee cups are made predominantly out of paper and card, but have a thin plastic lining which allows the cup to maintain its structural integrity when filled with hot liquid. Takeaway coffee cups have become synonymous with the development of the “on the go” culture.

What is the problem?

The cups themselves are technically recyclable, and both the polythene film and the paper material are widely recycled in the UK, the issue with these cups is that the film is tightly bonded to the paper and difficult to remove. As a result, the recycling process is difficult and often not cost efficient. Add some contamination from residual liquid in the cup into the mix, and the recycling situation becomes even more difficult.

What is being done?

Various recycling companies are able to recycle coffee cups in the UK and we have recently seen an increase in the communications to customers about recycling the cups. Many recyclers now request that the empty cups are stacked upside down for collection, this ensures the lid and any residual liquid are removed to minimise contamination. Pulping processes are then utilised to remove the plastic lining from the paper material for separate recycling.

Due to the recent prevalence of disposable coffee cups in the news, there has been more consumer and industry drive to promote recycling and minimise usage, and there are now companies which offer rewards for using re-usable coffee cups and even a rental service in London for portable multi-use cups.

As part of the discussions around the recent 25-year environmental plan, there has been growing pressure for a “Latte Levy”. This would be a small stipend placed on the purchase of a disposable coffee cup (similar to the 5p bag tax) and has been quoted as potentially being around 25p. it is interesting to hear senior environmental figures back this idea now, as only a year ago, whilst celebrating the success of the 5p bag tax, the previous environmental undersecretary mentioned the possibility of a disposable cup tax, an idea which at the time was immediately denied by DEFRA as well as major café brands. This is an indication of how much the public and industry opinion on recycling and resource efficiency has changed over the last year.