Breaking down the plastics debate


In the past couple of years, plastic has increasingly found itself at the heart of any conversation about sustainability.

It’s an evolving debate regularly focused on at the Packaging Innovations expos, organised by Easyfairs and held in Birmingham and London.

The show’s Big Plastics Debate has featured extensive discussions on the topic over the past four editions of the show.

“Plastics are a massive issue and we cannot ignore it,” said Easyfairs marketing project manager Alessandra Leonard. “Sustainability is a massive trend and we need to give everyone attending enough information to make informed decisions.”

Plastic alternatives came under the microscope at the most recent show, the luxury-focused London edition at Olympia in September, as MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee recently warned that there is no infrastructure in place to properly dispose of many of the ‘eco-friendly’ plastic alternatives being brought to market.

Many such alternatives were on display at the event, with advocacy group A Plastic Planet’s PlasticFreeLand showcasing eight exhibitors currently producing plastic-free bio-materials.

Frankie Gillard, representative for A Plastic Planet, said: “We do not value plastic as a material in society, and if it is littered it only causes problems for nature.

“Our campaign is pushing for a switch to earth-digestible resources that come from nature because no one wants another plastic bottle.

“If you are bringing a product to market today, you should be having to worry about the consequences of its disposal.”

Among the speakers at September’s Big Plastics Debate, the focus was on how, while single-use plastics are irreparably damaging our world, our waste systems are not yet built to handle the glut of new materials rushing in to take its place.

Zero Waste Scotland environmental policy advisor Michael Lenaghan said: “I cannot tell you how many companies have made innovative products and not even considered how they will interact with our existing system. Biodegradables have flooded the market, but it will take our infrastructure years to catch up.

“We need to stop looking for single-use solutions to the single-use problems and go beyond that to build a circular economy.”

Like-for-like replacement of materials was widely criticised by the show’s panellists, with Carlsberg sustainability manager Pete Statham highlighting his company’s recent ‘snap pack’ innovation which removes the need for any package on a six-pack of beer cans.

“Plastics are the topic of the day and everyone is just trying to get rid of them,” he said. “In most cases, people are not fixing it, they are just switching plastic for things like cartonboard.

“I would encourage companies to look beyond just the plastic and look at how they can change their whole product. A call to a recycling centre, or trying to stick to a single material, can be great ways to develop sustainable packaging.”

What makes discussions at present especially electric is the lack of definitive answers – there is a veritable smorgasbord of potential solutions entering the market, but nothing that does the job industry wide.

Jonathan Ritson, a policy analyst for eco think tank Green Alliance, said: “We are not saying that one material is perfect. Every material has its uses and can be sustainable if done well, but you cannot put something on the market if it cannot be recycled.

“It is important that we work to close the loop on resources in this country.”

Compostables and biodegradable plastics were at the forefront of the debate, prevalent as they were among enthusiastic exhibitors showing off the latest eco-substrates they were ready to launch to market.

Questions of infrastructure surfaced in response, as experts in biologically derived materials weighed in to offer considerations for manufacturers.

Andy Sweetman, marketing manager at compostable film producer Futamura, said: “One question that always comes up is how to get your compostables composted. There are some materials that can be home-composted, but we need an industrial solution.

“Our vision is to see a system built where compostable packaging goes into the food waste system to be composted together, but it needs to be labelled effectively so consumers, collectors and processors know that is the case.”

Materials scientist and UCL professor Mark Miodownik concurred, stressing that “there is no such thing as a sustainable material, only a sustainable system”.

“What that means is considering where a material comes from, where it goes and how it is processed,” he said. “We certainly do not have the systems in place to accommodate that right now.

“In our mass system, it is hard to tell the difference between plastics and bio-plastics. There are systems there that currently work but we need to put the work in to make sure they can be sustained and adapt to new materials.” 

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