Over the past 2–3 years plastics have become the public face of the waste pollution crisis. Industry is responding by switching to other materials without considering their environmental impact relative to plastics, or whether sufficient local waste collection systems are in place, the Plastic Promises report launched by independent UK think tank the Green Alliance concludes.
Although its findings will come as little surprise to those involved in recycled plastics markets, and are mirrored across Europe, it once again highlights the gap in consumer understanding of the relative environmental impact of nonplastic alternatives and the unintended consequences this is having across the recycling industries. For example, nonplastic food-packaging alternatives – on average – increase energy use by 2.2 times, carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions by 2.7 per cent, and weight by 3.6 times, according to a UK parliamentary select committee report released in September 2019.
Indeed, the shift in things like bottled drinks from glass to materials such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that took place across recent decades was in part driven by its lower carbon usage and weight. Coupled with this, food-contact paper and cardboard packaging typically needs to be treated with a plastic barrier, making it more difficult to recycle and doing little to counterbalance the problem of microplastic ocean leakage. For consumers, plastic is a homogenized entity rather than a series of different materials with different degrees of sustainability, recyclability or local collection rates.
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