Despite measures to increase recycling, discarded plastic consumer packaging continues to blight the planet.
Five hundred tonnes of Christmas tree lights and at least 25m bags of plastic sweet wrappers, turkey coverings, drinks bottles and broken toys will be thrown away by UK homes this Christmas and new year. But only a tiny proportion of this waste will be recycled.
Even at other times of year, only a little under a quarter of the UK’s plastic waste is recycled, but over the festive period still less escapes the tip according to a survey by home drinks maker SodaStream. Globally, recycling of plastics is even smaller.
The outcome is a belief that the Earth is being slowly strangled by a gaudy coat of impermeable plastic waste that collects in great floating islands in the world’s oceans; clogs up canals and rivers; and is swallowed by animals, birds and sea creatures.
In many parts of the developing world it acts as a near ubiquitous outdoor decoration, along roads in India, around villages in Africa and fluttering off fences across Latin America. And when it is not piling up, it is often burned in the open, releasing noxious smoke.
There are no global figures on the true scale of the problem but, according to PlasticsEurope, the European trade association for plastics manufacturers, 265m tonnes of plastic are produced globally each year. In the UK, about two thirds of this is for packaging; globally, this would translate to 170m tonnes of plastic largely created to be disposed of after one use.
Even at the almost unmatched EU recycling rate of 33%, two thirds of that – or more than 113m tonnes – would end up in landfill, being burned or cluttering up the environment. Such a figure, almost certainly a huge underestimate, would be enough to cover the 48 contiguous states of the US in plastic food wrapping. If the world recycled packaging at the rate the US does, 15%, it would generate more than enough plastic to cover China in plastic wrap. Every year.
A few years ago the UK was seized with worry about plastic bags: communities went “plastic-bag free” and the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, announced he would talk to retailers about phasing them out. In the absence of much change, his successor, David Cameron, recently re-raised the idea of a national levy. In response, the plastics industry argues that the alternatives would be even more wasteful in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
What would a world without plastic look like? Earlier this year, Austria-based environmental consultancy Denkstatt imagined such a world, where farmers, retailers and consumers use wood, tins, glass bottles and jars, and cardboard to cover their goods. It found the mass of packaging would increase by 3.6 times, it would take more than double the energy to make and the greenhouse gases generated would be 2.7 times higher.
To understand this, consider the properties of plastic that make it so attractive: it is durable, flexible, it does not shatter, it can breathe (or not) and it is extremely lightweight. As a result, food and drink are protected from damage and kept for lengths of time previously unimaginable.
The European Packaging and Films Association (Pafa) says average spoilage of food between harvest and table is 3% in the developed world, compared with 50% in developing countries, where plastic pallets, crates, trays, film and bags are not so widespread. Once the food reaches people’s homes, its lifespan is also increased – for a shrinkwrapped cucumber, from two to 14 days.
A less obvious benefit is that, by being much lighter than alternatives, plastic packaging greatly reduces the fuel needed for transport. Because of the huge carbon content of our diets, it is estimated that for every tonne of carbon produced by making plastic, five tonnes is saved, says Barry Turner from Pafa.
A more surprising point is made by Friends of the Earth’s waste campaigner Julian Kirby, who points out that because it is inert in landfill, plastic waste buried in the ground is a counterintuitive way of “sequestering” carbon and so avoiding it adding to global warming and climate change.
This focus on carbon and climate change, however, ignores the very reasons plastic bags and plastic packaging generally first gripped the public imagination – namely that it is such a highly visible result of our throwaway society.
Wales, Ireland and other countries have opted to levy a tax on plastic bags to deter their use but making deeper cuts to plastic waste will need other options too.
Many “ethical” products – from sandwiches to nappy bags – have switched to biodegradable plastics, made either from natural products such as cornstarch or by using an additive that helps break down the plastic. However, Turner suggests this will remain a niche, because the process is expensive and – in his words – is “destroying” a resource that could be recycled.
Recycling plastic is particularly hard because there are so many types and because it is difficult to remove contamination. Increasing recycling is, though, one of the two areas focused on by the plastics industry. It estimates that if every council in the UK operated at the rates achieved by the best local authority for each type of plastic – PET bottles, cartons, trays, bags and so on – the country could raise total plastic recycling from 23% to 45%. “On-the-go” recycling – currently almost nonexistent – also needs to be dramatically improved, said Turner.
To meet its self-imposed target of zero plastic waste to landfill by 2020, however, the industry is largely looking to incineration, which is highly controversial with environment groups and communities, who worry about how waste ash is disposed of and breathing in emissions from the plants – despite assurances from the Health Protection Agency that modern plants are not damaging to health.
Greenhouse gas emissions from such plants are also high: equivalent to 540g of carbon dioxide (CO²e) per kilowatt hour, more than gas power and more than 100 times that for nuclear.
Instead, environment campaigners want more attention paid to the “waste hierarchy” – reduce, reuse, recycle. To drive this change, the government this month proposed increasing all recycling targets, raising plastics to 50%.
If enforced, that should encourage innovations, such as more food recycling (which research suggests reduces over-purchasing and so the need for packaging), and the recent development of a new dye for black plastic bags which, unlike the traditional compound, can be detected by the automatic sorting machines.
Globally, 47 industry groups have united to fund research to stop plastic getting into the seas. On land, countries could adopt a system used in several European nations where manufacturers are responsible for recovering a percentage of the plastic they make. “The idea of producer responsibility is one that people are most agreed on, but no one’s sure how,” said Kirby.