Tackling plastics requires care and collaboration

Across brands, retailers and manufacturers, the people who design and specify materials and formats for packs, are grappling with demands from their customers to use less plastic 

Some businesses, such as the retailer Iceland, have said they will remove plastics altogether from their packaging and others are targeting major reductions.

Politicians, too, are paying close attention to the issue. The problem with politics is that it thrives on soundbites that score points and can miss the nuances or complexities of a question.

In this case, while we know that the ocean plastics issue must be solved, we must not forget why we use plastics in the first place; it is light to transport and offers combinations of ways to protect the product inside and keep it fresh – so-called barrier properties – that other materials can’t always match.

Multiple solutions are needed for tackling plastics 

Plastics play a key role in keeping much of the food we eat fresh from farm to fork; their role in the supply chain that feeds the population is crucial and undeniable.

So there is a danger here that a knee-jerk political reaction to the plastics issue could lead to negative unintended consequences. Multiple solutions are needed for different parts of the market. And I know, because I see it every day, that people across the packaging supply chain are working night and day to solve the issues ocean plastics raise.

We must not forget the impact that consumers have on reducing plastic waste. Littering is a behavioural change that should come from individuals, while councils can develop waste collection systems which are easy to understand.

How do we get used packaging back from the consumer and into recycling plants, and then back into the supply chain? Packaging, after all, doesn’t litter itself or dump itself in the sea.

The good news is there is a huge amount of work in this area too. Deposit return schemes are being reintroduced to encourage consumers to bring back their bottles. And there have been some moves towards standardising the many different local models of waste collection.

There are organisations and schemes out there, such as the on-pack recycling label, doing great work in this area. But there is a way to go; a recent survey showed that most people are still unable to identify correctly what can or cannot be recycled.

Consumer education must be main focus

So educating the consumer is a crucial focus. This has to come from more than one direction, with brands and retailers helping to get the message across. And the task here would be made much easier, in the UK at least, with a standardised collection system across the country.

The exciting part is how challenges, such as the ocean plastics issue, bring out the best in innovation. We are already seeing a range of new inventions across the board, from papers with plastic-like barrier properties and effective recycling for black plastic trays, to plastics that can compost and so on.

The best and most innovative solutions, though, come when people across the supply chain collaborate, listen to each other and work towards a common goal. This ensures government makes informed decisions on our behalf, that industry develops the best solutions and consumers have the tools to make the right decisions. It’s only by working together that we can tackle the issue of plastic waste head-on and give future generations a better outlook.