The Plastic Pandemic – will plastic’s lockdown ever end?


By Paul Jenkins, Managing Director, ThePackHub

 

The packaging industry permanently changed around three years ago. The Blue Planet 2 programme presented by the excellent David Attenborough highlighted the ugly situation the world has carelessly put itself in. He described how our oceans are being filled with literally millions of tonnes of plastic. The haunting scenes of sea life trying to extricate themselves from waste plastic left an indelible mark on our memories.


Blue Planet 2 has been widely acknowledged as starting a domino effect creating a series of events that has changed how we now deal with packaging. Of course, the environment has always been of consideration for the majority of brand owners and retailers. However, rather than being a ‘nice to have’, sustainability is now an essential top priority for anyone that wants to sell a successful product.

The ‘Blue Planet 2 effect’ saw supermarket plastic bans, plastic-free aisle trials, plastic tax plans, the outlawing of many single-use plastic items as well as the founding of the UK Plastic Pact. This saw most of the leading brand owners, retailers and suppliers in the UK pledge to make their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.


Plastic packaging is now under increased pressure and scrutiny. The renewed focus on the environment and and devastation of our oceans, is really all about plastic. Many organisations have put strategies in place to reduce or remove plastic from their supply chains. Other materials such as paper, aluminium and glass are often the preferred alternative.


‘Single-use plastic’ is a byword for everything wrong with the situation. But, the oceans are full of all sorts of items that should not be there. Packaging materials of all types plus an abundance of fishing waste also enter our seas every day. A broken glass bottle will still exist in the oceans for decades causing potential harm to sealife. The focus should be on the reduction of ocean waste for all materials and not just plastic.


To replace plastic bags with paper versions requires nearly three times more energy, 1.6 times more carbon dioxide emissions and 17 times more water. In terms of PET plastic bottles, a glass bottle equivalent uses nearly five times the greenhouse gases. An aluminium can is about 2.5 times the CO2 emissions equivalent. Replacing plastic is not always the best for the environment if you use CO2 emissions as your yardstick.


Plastic is a beneficial material. Plastic packaging is used in the food supply chain because it supports the safe distribution of food over long distances and also helps to minimise food waste by keeping food fresher for longer. Minimising this waste is crucial for the ultimate protection of the environment as well as for food safety. The cucumber example is often used. Estimates indicate that a plastic wrap can extend its shelf life from just three days to 14. This helps reduce overall food spoilage and waste, which has an even bigger carbon footprint than the single-use film in the first place.


We keep getting wake up calls from various sources stating that we don’t have long left to save the planet and if we don’t act fast, it will be too late. The climate crisis is a real one. The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases has been known for many years. If we only focus on the removal of plastic then we’re not solving the right problem. Greenhouse gases will continue to rise.


I am not saying that plastic situation is not a bad one. It is horrific, but we do need a more balanced view on how we tackle the plight of our oceans. To single-mindedly hate plastic at all costs is not the right way forward.