Circular packaging - what role should plastic play?

02 May 2018

So plastic materials seem to have risen back up the agenda in the past six months with a number of reports concluding that we use too much plastic, though not defined quantitatively the correct consumption level of plastic.

The UK Government has a strategy to eliminate its use by 2042. And now 40 companies and organisations have signed up to the plastics pledge. This aims to achieve the following by 2025:

  • Take actions to eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging items through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models
  • 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted
  • 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.

Plastic was once the solution to our packaging problems – it has a lower manufacturing footprint than many other materials and its barrier properties can be very effective at extending the life of food products.

Now comes the dash for the first plastic-free own brand, the first plastic-free supermarket aisle and so on. There is a lot to be said for the competitive innovation that could be unleashed here. One UK retailer has  refused to sign the pledge preferring to commit to be plastic-free in its own brand by 2025. I salute their aim and ambition. But I can’t help but wonder exactly what materials they will use instead.

The worry is that by fixing one problem, another is created.  This is perhaps the same nagging doubt that must have afflicted the team introducing the cane toad into Australia. The cane toad will just eat the bugs on the sugar cane won’t it? It won’t wander off the fields and feast on the unprotected native fauna of Australia? Find out here if you have not come across this.

When considering switching a product from plastic to card packaging, there are a number of questions I think must be addressed before taking the next step:

  1. Does your card have a coating? Is it a plastic coating? If so, what happens to the plastic coating when the card is recycled? If it is washed out through the effluent plant, could you be putting micro plastic into the marine environment?
  2. What will you do with drinks? Paper cartons are made of laminate materials and whilst they can be recycled, it’s not straightforward, and are around 25% plastic anyway.
  3. Paper fibres, unlike clear plastic pellets, can only generally be recycled around 7 times before they have to drop out of the paper recycling process into energy recovery. Yes they can be replaced from sustainable sources, but is this definitely better than a plastic that can be recycled again and again?

It may be that if you have thought these questions through that the switch is the right thing to do. Personally, I am not convinced we have the data yet to make this decision.

In my career as a consultant, I have occasionally been asked to opine on whether plastic, glass, aluminium or card is a better packaging material, environmentally speaking. There are a wealth of contradictory industry association studies. The best answer you can give is that it depends on the product, the distance it has to be transported to market and the waste management system in that market.

One point that every study I have seen does agree on, is that recycled material of any type has a lower environmental impact than virgin material. Instead of arguing over plastic versus card, I think companies should make every piece of packaging as recyclable as possible and use as much recycled content as possible for every material they use. It is something we're focused on addressing across our own network.

For that reason, I support the commitments made in the plastic pact and look forward to seeing the results of companies’ efforts to deliver on them. Whether we end up using plastic in the long term I don't know but that will be another chapter in the story.

Henry le Fleming,

PwC Sustainability and Climate Change - www.pwc.co.uk/circulareconomy

+44 (0) 207 213 4097 | henry.le.fleming@pwc.com