War on Plastic

Dr Marcus Gover, CEO WRAP


Like many, I watched Hugh and Anita’s War on Plastic last week. Whether or not we like this style of journalism, programmes like this certainly make everyone think. 

We all acknowledge that plastic packaging continues to litter our countryside and seas, causing damage to nature and wildlife. We all have a responsibility to put a stop to that – here in the UK and across the world. 

At WRAP we are working hard to make the system better. We are striving to remove unnecessary plastic and making sure that the plastic packaging we need is re-used or recycled – keeping it in the economy and out of the environment. That is why we worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to launch The UK Plastics Pact. A world-first which brings together those who can change the system – the plastic producers, the retailers, the recyclers and the governments. It is not enough to just do this in the UK alone and we are also working to set up Plastics Pacts all over the world. 

While we need to eliminate unnecessary packaging, we can’t just stop using all plastic in packaging. Packaging plays a crucial role in protecting food, making it last longer and stopping it from being wasted. Globally, a third of all food is wasted. That wasted food is responsible for around 8% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, consumed a quarter of all water used in agriculture, and took an agricultural area the size of China to produce. In a world where one in nine people do not have enough to eat, we have to stop that – and plastic plays a key role. 

Beef steak in a plastic packI often show the picture below of a beef steak in a plastic pack.  The carbon footprint of the 225g steak is 6kg CO2e – that is the same as driving my car 60km!  It  sells for £33,000 per tonne. It is huge investment in terms of money and carbon.  

Throwing it away because it was allowed to go off would be a horrendous waste. The plastic pack which protects it weighs only 25g and has a carbon footprint of only 75g CO2e – I can’t even drive my car 1km for that. 

But … the black plastic pack was difficult to recycle and so there was a risk of it ending up in the wrong place. Through The UK Plastics Pact, we have changed that. More than 19,000 tonnes of non-recyclable black plastic (the equivalent of 1.5bn ready meal trays) has been removed by our Pact members. The UK Plastics Pact covers 95% of supermarkets and the majority of brands sold through them.  That means we have not just changed a few, but changed the whole – it is system change at scale.  

Hugh and Anita’s programme targeted sandwich packs. Using card for food packaging is challenging.  The card needs a layer of either wax or plastic film to protect the food.  We all know what happens to card when it gets wet, and fresh food has a high water content. This can make card packaging for fresh food difficult to recycle, and this is even more problematic if chunks of food are left inside before recycling. 

WRAP has worked with the Confederation of Paper Industries (CPI), who represent the UK paper and card industry, and agreed design guidance for recycling.  You can read it on our web site: https://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Fibre%20packaging%20design%20guide%20v3.pdf.

Any coating to make card water-proof is a problem, as the recycling process involves dissolving in water. The hydro-pulpers are designed to remove contamination including plastic, but they can only do so much; the plastic needs to separate from the fibres very quickly. Not only is plastic a source of contamination, it is expensive. The paper industry estimate that the cost of removing and disposing of contamination is more than £50m annually. We must work together to address the problems and the cost.  

The CPI recommends that no more than 5% (by weight) of card packaging should be plastic and that it should be easily separable from the card (by using minimal amounts of water-based adhesive).  

The sandwich industry has committed to reduce the plastic in its sandwich packs. The limit is currently 15% and as reported on the programme, it will reduce to 10% by 2023. I feel we have to go faster though and I would like to challenge the industry to adopt our guidance and move to 5% by 2023.  

Making that change would give us a consistent design for sandwich packs.  We also need a consistent recycling system to handle them. In England, Defra is currently consulting on this issue and WRAP published its Framework for Greater Consistency in Collections in England in 2016. It is time we took more action on this and I call on more local authorities to adopt it.

Many sandwich packs are consumed away from home.  On the go recycling facilities lag way behind those we have at home.  We need the businesses who place on the go packaging on the market to take more responsibility for their packaging and work with local authorities to create more recycling infrastructure.  Some of you are already doing this and I congratulate you for that, but we need more to follow. 

Citizens (ie you, me, all of us) also have a role to play. We can all help by ensuring that any food is removed before we place it in the recycling – that applies for all types of packaging. And while we really need to focus on reducing wasted food, if a service is available then we can recycle food waste which turns it into energy to power our communities. 

Tea bags were also targeted on the programme, and it still comes as a surprise to many that they often contain a small amount of plastic. This is an item that we have identified within our report Eliminating Problem Plastics. We have challenged UK Plastics Pact members to adopt compostable solutions. While I’m pleased progress is being made, including recently by PG Tips and Co-op, more must be done. 

So the War on Plastic still rages, and at WRAP it is our mission to win, with collaboration our primary weapon. But ‘we’ is not WRAP, it is all of us united.