Plastic pollution - what can be done?
UPDATED 14 October 2018
Since initially posting this article in January, we'd live to give you a quick update of the measures that we're planning to take to reduce the use of plastic or at least make the plastic more sustainable if no viable alternatives exist. We're making these changes after in-depth discussion with packaging material suppliers. It's fair to say that the plastics packaging industry is quickly trying to 'up its game' as a result of the justifiable focus by the media and general public.
- Swapping the plastic of the Soda Crystals bag to a recyclable one
- Trialing a bottle for one of our own lines that will consist of recycled plastic
- Swapping one of our products from a plastic to tub to a cardboard box
We have also been attending Retailer supplier conferences and are very pleased to report that the reduction in the use of plastic is a top priority for them.
We've posted previously about the packaging options available to us. Packaging decisions are often complex; it's not just about the suitability of a material for its intended purpose, other factors come into play. Cost is undoubtedly a major one. Now waste and recycling is (rightly) in the media spotlight. Almost every decision has an impact and most of those may not be immediately obvious.
Dri-Pak pays a tax on ALL the materials used in its products under 'Packaging Waste Regulations', which is intended to be used to fund recycling. The majority of our products are packaged in recycled cardboard, which can in itself be recycled. But liquids like white vinegar and liquid soap need to be packaged in plastic. Glass would not only increase production costs, it would increase transport costs due to the weight and there would be more breakages and associated clean up expenses, contamination of other products in transit etc.
It would seem relatively straight-forward to say that 'we should recycle more'. In practice however, it's a complex situation:
- Although some plastics can be recycled, some can't - either because of their composition or because facilities do not exist. For example, although a plastic bottle can be recycled, the cap usually isn't, because of a lack of facilities. Even if the customer discards the cap, there is often a tamper-evident ring left on the bottle neck that's difficult to remove. Do we remove the tamper evident caps? Does the customer try to remove it, possibly risking injury, or does the recycling centre remove it? Which leads us on to...
- Who sorts the recycling? This process has a manual element to it. The outputs are not commercially viable and in the UK we simply can't cope with the current levels of recycling. As a country, we have historically exported waste to countries like China for sorting and recycling, where labour is cheap. There is of course an environmental impact involved in transportation, but now China is banning this practice anyway.
- There's more on the sustainability of plastics on the BPF website.
At the moment, single use plastic is under the spotlight - particularly drinks bottles and disposable coffee cups but no doubt the scope of the discussion will increase to multiple use products, like cleaning products. Society needs to re-evaluate its 'consumption' patterns; that may be on a personal level (do you really need to buy a bottle of water when the tap water is just as good and could be put into a drinks bottle for use outside the home?) or at a national level? Can consumers be incentivised to switch, either by taxes like the plastic bag tax or by forced retailer 'deposit back' schemes?
The government is also considering a 'stick' approach and is consulting on the introduction of a packaging tax for plastic products with less than 30% recycled content. The problems are many: the recycled content simpy isn't available at present and the end outcome, whether it's more recycled plastic or taxed virgin plastic is that products on the shelves will cost more. Many people are happy to call for more sustainable products but rather less willing to pay more at the till for such products. This article talks about the types of plastic and their recyclability.
At Dri-Pak, we take our environmental responsibilities very seriously and welcome any initiative at a micro or macro level that follows the mantra of reduce, re-use and recycle. But this has to be a top-down approach, it's rare that manufacturers will unilaterally be able to make such a decision. Most packaging change initiatives will involve increased cost, because those that reduce costs are already likely to have been implemented. Retailers are loathe to accept any packaging changes that incur costs for the consumer. So even if a manufacturer like Dri-Pak tried to opt for a 'greener' packaging solution, it's unlikely that a retailer would accept the increased cost. They are actively trying to drive DOWN costs from manufacturers. The rise of the discounters has undoubtedly moved the market towards lower prices (as a proportion of household expenditure).
Eco-packaging is a laudable goal, but often has to be paid for and the 'cradle to grave' impact considered. For example, does compostable plastic release CO2 that has been locked away in oil for millions of years? Some plastics are plant based but tend to have a higher initial cost. Hopefully technology can play a part in bringing innovative solutions; scientists discovered that old plastic bottles can be used to make fleeces and they will undoubtedly discover alternative uses for waste plastic. It may be that if it can't be economically recycled, it can be used to create electricity and heat. It's not ideal, but if it means that less coal and oil is burned, then the OVERALL environmental impact can be reduced ie the lesser of two evils. Watch this interesting video on CHP.
Some of the wider issues are discussed in this article from the British Plastics Federation.
However, at the end of the day, the buck has to stop at the customer...or the tax payer!
We'd welcome your comments and suggestions. Feel free to comment below or join the chat on our Facebook page.