The plastics puzzle – Why are UK waste streams lagging behind?

The plastics puzzle – Why are UK waste streams lagging behind?

Around the UK, the plastic packaging debate has rolled on for more than a decade and it’s clear that the discussion needs to move forwards.

On one side of the argument, the media vilifies plastic packaging waste as the chief sustainability issue facing the country. Images of landfill sites and cartons washing up on shore have been prevalent. However, on the other side of the fence, the packaging sector argues that packaging itself is not the problem and in fact reduces overall CO2 by reducing food waste. The sector highlights that waste recycling streams are not up to par. This changes how consumers are disposing of the products they buy, which in turn creates the littering and detritus seen in media reports.


The impact of Seaspiracy

The 2021 Netflix documentary, ‘Seaspiracy’, marked a significant turning point in public discourse. The programme, which takes a closer look at the challenges facing our oceans, begins with the intent of finding the true extent of plastic in the oceans.

British filmmaker, Ali Tabrizi, initially hoped to uncover statistics showing the impact of plastic packaging waste in the ocean, including the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ gyre. The documentary soon finds that plastic straws and packaging makes up a much smaller amount of this waste than expected.

Tabrizi uncovers that plastic straws account for just 0.03% of oceanic plastic, in stark contrast to the picture painted in mainstream media. The team filming Seaspiracy then turned the camera to overfishing, identifying it as the far bigger threat to our oceans.


Challenges of the current waste streams

Seaspiracy highlights a very real problem with the portrayal and subsequent criticism of plastic packaging in mainstream media – misinformation. It is vital that we keep the consumer informed and educated on plastic packaging. This includes its sustainability advantages that often go unmentioned in media coverage and the real challenge behind plastic waste – a fractured and often ill-prepared waste stream.

Plastics are essential for brands and consumers alike, whether that be globally sourced products that need to stay fresher for longer, or locally manufactured goods that need to be protected from cross-contamination and the elements, to name just two examples of many requirements. However, if plastics are to play their part, the infrastructure that currently processes plastics post-consumer needs to be rethought and overhauled.

We are slowly moving shoppers away from a linear ‘use and discard’ mindset, trying to build a more robust circular economy but behavioural changes alone are not enough – there must be the plastic recovery stream in place to make this happen. However, the current recycling infrastructure in place is not fully prepared for today’s consumer recycling, let alone the accelerated demands of the future.

For many, the most significant problem in place is that so much of the plastic waste stream is governed by local councils rather than a single point of authority. This means that moving from one county to another in the UK, for example, the recycling infrastructure and services available vary wildly. There’s no consistency, which inevitably leads to confusion. Without a single system for everyone to adhere to, the capacity to shape and develop the current infrastructure will remain limited, leaving the UK continuing to lag behind other western countries.

Many countries of late have been closing their doors to imports of UK waste, which means it’s never been more important that we have strong infrastructure in place. We must proactively step up and shore up our own domestic processing, reprocessing, treatment and recovery infrastructure, alongside continuing to drive the reduce and reuse messages to optimise the situation.

Continuing to export a portion of our waste isn’t a viable long-term solution and only serves to highlight the shortcomings of our own fractured systems. We also need to remain aware that the UK has come under fire for sending plastic waste to low and middle-income countries outside the Organisation of Economic Co-operations and Development, despite a partial ban and sanctions on the practice.

By focusing our attention at home, there are significant benefits on the table. A clearer and more united waste infrastructure would create jobs and economic value, while also better protecting our key industries.

The challenges facing our waste streams become very apparent in the data. Statistical body Eurostat notes that around 44.1% of the UK’s municipal waste was recycled in 2018, compared to the European average of 47.4%. Despite close geographic proximity, our neighbours in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany fare much better, recycling 52.5%, 55.9% and 67.3% respectively.


An alternative approach

The packaging sector can introduce all the efficiency and substrate innovation it can to increase sustainability, but without the processing infrastructure in place to support it, it won’t reach its potential.

However, there are other ways of creating packaging sustainability that don’t include landfill or incinerators. It’s clear that the consumer is more engaged with recycling and responsible disposal, and for brands, there is a very stark message. In the face of greenwashing, ‘sustainability’ as a term has become too vague for the consumer to truly understand. What they seek is credible, actionable information. Recycling is one approach, but compostable packaging offers an alternative, which is fast becoming an attractive proposition for shoppers.

At Parkside, we have developed a pioneering range of compostable flexible packaging under our Park2Nature™ series, that we’re proud to say boasts a number of firsts. Our team develops multilayer laminates that are suitable for home and industrial composting, accredited by TUV (formerly Vincotte) and OK Compost HOME standards – a first for the UK flexible packaging market. Simply, the solution is biodegradable packaging that breaks down under composting conditions into water, CO2 and biomass with no negative impact to the local environment. Think of it as bio-recycling!

Parkside offers compostable flexible laminates in the specifications that brands require across categories such as coffee, confectionery, dried food and snacks. The range was over 8 years in the making, ensuring that the flexible packaging offered by Parkside gives brands not only a strong marketing tool, but an innovative approach to everyday packaging sustainability.

Made from renewable sources, such as plant fibres, cassava and corn starch, the Park2Nature range reduces the reliance on petrochemicals and creates a true ‘cradle-to-cradle’ life cycle. The range is designed to replace multi-layer barrier laminates that can’t currently be recycled, as well as reducing the burden on recycling streams.

For brands, compostable packaging has another added benefit when it comes to the impending plastic tax. In the near future, packaging suppliers and brands will face additional taxation on packaging that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic at an astonishing £200 per tonne. Imported plastic is included in this, both filled and unfilled.

This is set to sharply increase the demand for plastic recyclates. With a recycling infrastructure that is already insufficient for today’s needs, this is likely to cause major problems for many brands in terms of supply and logistics. Plant-based plastic from biomass sources, where the majority of the laminate is made from pulp-based products such as paper, or viscose as found in our Natureflex solution, are not subject to the same tax and may well prove more abundant – putting brands with compostable packaging at a distinct operational advantage. Crucially, since some of our compostable flexible packaging solutions are exempt from the plastic packaging tax, dependent on composition, this puts Parkside customers at a significant advantage in a changing legislative landscape.


In conclusion

The UK is lagging behind many of its contemporaries in recycling and waste recovery, and there is still work to do in terms of tackling misinformation for the consumer. An ideal solution would be that the media treats plastic packaging with more objectivity, highlighting the importance of packaging in protecting goods – and the planet – as well as the challenges.

We must continue to strive for a circular economy, which for the UK, means campaigning for a stronger and more connected process at every level. The Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) believes that by 2025, all plastic packaging should be reusable, recyclable or compostable. The aim is to eliminate single-use plastic packaging through redesign and alternative delivery models – but the current recycling infrastructure is not where it needs to be to make this a reality.

Alternative formats, such as compostable packaging, offer a strong alternative for brands looking to make more proactive changes to their plastic packaging. Improvements to the waste stream may be a long way in the future, but packaging innovation is at an all-time high – so there are very viable alternatives on the table.

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