Last reviewed 30 September 2021

From revolutionary to ruinous, plastics breathed life into the current age we live in today. Now we face decisions and policy to wean businesses away from the lifeline that plastics offered to a more sustainable means of production in order to mitigate pollution, habitat loss and climate change. Existing commitments are to be reconsidered and even redoubled where new zero-waste and carbon reduction targets are to be met in earnest. Max Starr reports.

Current plastic strategy trends

Whether the stance be reusable containers and bottles, banning single-use plastics or implementing tax on plastic packaging, the current stance from legislators and regulators is more must be done to keep on track for UK plastic usage, waste and carbon targets. Consumers and stakeholders are becoming increasingly more concerned with business practice and operations, regularly scrutinising procedures and searching for best practice for sustainability in the workplace.

A trending strategy is to replace single-use plastics with paper products to increase recycling viability. This however may create different waste stream issues and raises questions around sustainability of the strategy, especially if the paper products are lined with plastic. The concept of circular economy is growing amongst businesses to demonstrate transparent whole-lifecycle production, this ethos revolves around cradle to grave responsibility of products and is considered a must for a true effort towards the zero-waste movement.

Plastic definitions

In the WRAP – Understand Plastic Packaging definition and terminology guide, plastics generally come from two rudimentary forms: Fossil-based plastics (FBPs, derived from petrochemicals) and Bio-based plastics (BBPs, derived from plant based sources). The consensus is that FBPs have greater longevity and are non-biodegradable, however they can be designed to biodegrade, where this plastic type would be considered a bioplastic. The term BBPs refers to the source of which the plastic was made rather than its function. BBPs can be developed to behave like conventional FBPs and may have similar properties, including being non-biodegradable. BBPs can be made to biodegrade and be compostable which would also fall under the definition of a bioplastic.

Non-biodegradable plastics will persist for many years before natural chemical degradation. Biodegradable plastics break down over a defined period, however this designation does not necessarily mean the plastic is suitable to be released into the natural environment as they may break down uncontrollably into biologically persistent compounds such as microplastics. Compostable plastics meet the EU waste specification EN13432 or similar, and decompose in industrial composting conditions. Further to this not all biodegradable plastics are compostable however any specifically compostable plastic is biodegradable.

These definitions for plastic products and packaging are worth noting and detailing where low impact pledges are advertised.

Latest Government stance

According to Defra’s recent Resource and Waste Strategy, it is estimated that the UK uses 5 million tonnes of plastic each year, half of which is plastic. In the 25 Year Environment Plan the Government recognised that polluting persistent plastics pose a major concern as environment impacts and has put forward the following ambitions.

  • Have all plastic packaging placed on the market being recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

  • Zero avoidable waste by 2050.

  • A target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042.

Consultations followed from the Resource and Waste Strategy in 2019 to elaborate further proposals including the following.

Following the published responses and additional consultations from the Government over July 2019, March 2021 and May 2021, provisions on a deposit return scheme, consistency in recycling and reform of the extended producer responsibility systems are now included in the Environment Bill 2021– 22.

Implication of Covid-19 on plastic use

The requirements of ensuring offices are Covid-19 secure have a high plastic waste cost where sanitisation products and procedure are used on mass. Normal office spaces should be regularly deep cleaned, employees may be provided with and expected to wear masks, sanitise hands often and even perform frequent lateral flow tests where necessary. All these requirements by and large have some form of plastic impact such as: used masks, cleaning and sanitary product containers, gloves and other long-lasting single-use plastics used in PPE, all of which enter the plastic waste stream.

There has been an inevitable increase in GHG emissions related to the production of materials necessary for sanitisation and as detailed in a recent European Environmental Agency briefing, for face masks alone GHG emissions pertaining to the manufacturing, transport and waste of single use face masks range from 4 to 33.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per tonne of masks as per the mask composition. The increase in consumption of face masks in Europe has resulted in an additional 2.4– 5.7 million tonnes of CO2e, above the business-as-usual level, emitted in a 6-month period from April to September 2020.

The closure of retail businesses for physical access has been attributed to some reduced consumption, however this pattern was matched with a large surge in online shopping which lead to an increase in the use of plastic and other single-use packaging for e-commerce parcel deliveries. A similar pattern was observed in restaurants where closure resulted in an increase of take-away options.

Plastic alternatives, behavioural and operational changes

An effective first step to reducing plastic waste is to consider plastic users in your business, at every stakeholder level. Starting dialogue and consultation with employees and employers opens the doors to frank and valuable conversation. Asking questions such as:

  • what is considered wasteful?

  • what produces most waste in which department (ie packaging)?

  • are you familiar with a company recycling plan?

Using this information can be instrumental in denting the overall business plastic waste stream, as there may be impacts that might have fallen through the net of a simple waste audit.

Following this and using the above information, a detailed waste audit will then provide a good overview of what operations require examining and overhauling. By monitoring all plastic use and waste over a defined period in all departments of business will give a snapshot of your overall plastic impact and upon reviewing audit, reforms can be applied. This could be in the form of:

  • removing all single use cutlery, cups/bottles and products from communal areas and providing refillable or personal items kitchen items

  • removing any rubbish bins and replacing them with centralised recycling points

  • revising packaging requirements in materials heavy departments (ie Reprographics/Dispatch)

  • changing the type of packaging plastics used from fossil fuel derived to compostable where possible

  • considering products total lifespan: can its design be amended to facilitate recycling and reuse?

Another concept to consider when tackling plastic waste is the 5 R’s of waste for plastics.

  1. Refuse: does the product need to be single use?

  2. Reduce: are orders made unnecessarily large?

  3. Reuse: can the product be used several times before replacements are needed?

  4. Repurpose: how can a product be used in different settings, even where its original purpose is no longer functional?

  5. Recycle.

This hierarchy allows consumers and businesses to prioritise their needs for change and gives a reliable checklist to compare for meaningful amendments and contributions in reducing plastic waste impact.