If we are going to resolve the plastic pollution issue we need to reduce, not just recycle
In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper it was revealed that only a third of plastic packaging in the UK is recycled. ‘Of the 1.5m tonnes of recyclable plastic waste used by consumers in Britain in 2015 only 500,000 tonnes was recycled, according to the figures compiled by Co-op from the Recoup UK’. The biggest offenders, not surprisingly are the plastic films that we use in bags and food coverings, only 3% of which are recycled. The main reason is only a small proportion of regional waste collection and recycling facilities are equipped to handle them.
Clearly there is a technological and infrastructure issue here that needs to be addressed, but we also have to address the excessive packaging that has become rife. It is interesting to note that in 2009 we highlighted another article in the Guardian newspaper about the excessive use of packaging. This followed a market research study commissioned by the Local Government Association in the UK. It stated, “If we had less unnecessary packaging, it would cut costs and lead to lower prices at the tills. When packaging is sent to landfill it is expensive for taxpayers and damaging for the environment. Britain is the dustbin of Europe with more rubbish being thrown into landfill than almost any other country in Europe. Taxpayers don’t want to see their money going towards paying landfill taxes and EU fines when council tax could be reduced instead.”
Roll on nearly 8 years and production of plastic packaging continues to increase. Unless we match that increase with a simultaneous improvement in waste management, we are never going to resolve the issue by recycling alone. So reducing excessive packaging has to be the answer. Some of you may remember that in 2010, Lincolnshire County Council trading standards attempted to bring about a legal action against giant supermarket chain Sainsbury to prevent excessive packaging. The case was dropped the day before the hearing after Lincolnshire Council claimed they received “evidence of a considerable reduction in packaging and the replacement of all previous stock”.
The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations introduced in the UK in 1998 require packaging volume and weight to be ‘limited to the minimum adequate amount to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer’.
Packaging should also be designed to permit its recovery by means of recycling, incineration for energy recovery, or composting / biodegradation, and to reduce the level of hazardous materials contained in it to a minimum. The obligation to ensure that these regulations are complied with lies with the “responsible person”. This is usually the packer/filler of the product or the importer of the packed product. Trading Standards Officers have responsibility for enforcing these regulations.
Recycling alone is never going to be enough, so perhaps we should look to the law, or the power of the consumer pocket to reduce the amount of packaging that is put into our lives.