Nigel Coates: Why we need a joined-up approach to plastic pollution

AS a Yorkshireman, putting it bluntly comes as a virtual birthright, so here goes – plastic packaging is currently vying with a couple of world leaders, and one or two rogue states, for the public enemy top spot. Its reputation is in tatters. And it’s easy to understand why.

How can the amount of plastic waste be reduced?
How can the amount of plastic waste be reduced?

We all agree that those images from Blue Planet II that really brought the issue to widespread publication attention were disgraceful, and reflected horrendously on the industry I’ve worked in for more years than I care to remember.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

But one thing has been overlooked in the outcry that’s followed – plastic packaging does not grow legs and walk into the oceans of the world on its own.

The reason why plastic waste ends up where it does is because people dump it there. And all the different companies and governments promising reductions, even bans, on the use of different plastic products isn’t going to stop that.

In fact, call me a cynic, but I’m convinced the PR mileage retailers and various other companies get from jumping on the ‘we’ll stop using this, that or the next thing in the next five, 10, maybe 15-years’ bandwagon is the driving force behind them doing it; as opposed to any real desire to complicate their operations and potentially reduce profits by coming up with a non-plastic alternative to whatever they are promising to phase out.

I realise it’s very easy to make that kind of statement, but I firmly believe that what we need is not a wholesale rubbishing of plastic packaging, but for all parties to work together to highlight, where appropriate, its benefits; find suitable alternatives when it’s not; and for governments to incentivise waste management companies to recycle all plastics as opposed to trading only in the currently very select crop of high-value ones.

The first thing that needs to be taken into account is that plastic packaging plays a very important role in our lives. Consider food – not only does it prevent wastage by providing the best solution to losses through damage in transit, but it considerably extends the shelf life of the product both in-store and at home.

Two factors, a lack of knowledge and recycling facilities, are key players behind our plastic problems. And given the number of different plastic materials currently in use, it’s easy to see why there is a huge lack of understanding as to what can be recycled.

I, for one, have no idea what my local authority’s policy on recycling is, and I’m sure not many reading this will either.

What I do know is that the amount a waste management company receives 
for recycling a tonne of clear plastic bottles is significantly greater than it would receive for a tonne of the kind of recycled black plastic material used 
with increasing regularity by supermarkets.

In fact, the amount per tonne for many plastics is often so low it makes no financial sense for a waste company to recycle them.

A reduction in the number of plastic polymers used may also be required to better enable recycling, but the waste management companies simply won’t up the amount of plastics they recycle without the right incentives and/or penalties in place.

However you look at it, the time has come for manufacturers, customers, and recyclers; as well as governments, to work together to ensure that there is a joined-up approach that guarantees that plastic packaging, as well as being fit for purpose, can and is recycled.

Once formulated, it is essential that this plan is communicated effectively through all available channels, including mainstream, social and online media, to ensure understanding and participation by all.

Only then will we be able say that we have done all that we can.

There are, of course, areas where plastics may not be the best solution, and it’s important these should be identified and phased out. But where plastic is the best option then people should be told the reasons why, rather than being bombarded with story after story calling for a ban on plastics.

Nigel Coates is managing director of thermoformed packaging specialist Leeds Vacuum Formers.